Whitmer's Florida flight cost shifted to campaign; owner won't let pols use anymore

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
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Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's candidate committee will now pay for her March flight to Florida to visit her father after the company that co-owns the jet said it could not accept payment from a social welfare nonprofit. 

PVS Chemicals, which still is fielding questions from federal regulators for allowing the governor to use the plane, said in a Thursday statement that it will deny any future requests from candidates or government officials seeking to use the jet. 

Whitmer will reimburse her candidate committee for the cost of a first-class commercial airline ticket for herself and her daughters, who accompanied her on the return flight, said Christopher Trebilcock, legal counsel for the Whitmer for Governor candidate committee and Michigan Transition 2019. 

Whitmer's security detail also was on the flight with her to and from Florida March 12 and March 15, Trebilcock said in a letter to House Oversight Chairman Steve Johnson. 

The change in source for the flight payment comes after the conservative group Michigan Rising acting filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service over the use of Michigan Transition 2019.

The Federal Aviation Administration also said earlier this month it would be looking into the flight since Detroit-based Air Eagle because it doesn't have a certificate allowing for charter-type services.

The Detroit News reported three prominent political donors used the Gulfstream G280 flown by Air Eagle: The Nicholson family of PVS Chemicals; the Cotton family, which ran Meridian Health; and the Moroun family of the trucking company Central Transport. 

This twin-engine jet Gulfstream G280 owned by Air Eagle flew from Lansing to Palm Beach on March 12 and returned to Lansing on March 15. Whitmer's father, Richard, the retired CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, owns a home in West Palm Beach.

On Thursday, PVS Chemicals President David Nicholson said the company's co-chairman James B. Nicholson granted Whitmer's March 8 request to use the plane because of safety concerns.

The company is answering all questions from the FAA and will follow a "newly created policy to deny all requests to fly candidates or government officials."

"Our highest priority when interacting with any government official, or representative of government, is to follow the highest standards dictated by both ethics and the law," David Nicholson said. "Over the past few weeks, we took the position that questions about this flight would be best addressed by the governor’s office. We still believe the outstanding questions are the purview of the governor’s office."

After the flight, amid media and regulator scrutiny, PVS told Michigan Transition 2019 on May 17 that FAA rules prevented it from taking the $27,521 in reimbursement from the social welfare organization, Trebilcock said.

"Based on this new understanding, the cost of the flight will now be paid from the Whitmer for Governor campaign fund consistent with FAA rules," Trebilcock said. 

The Whitmer for Governor campaign has not yet paid PVS for the flight as it waits for PVS to resolve the FAA inquiry, he said. 

Questions about the Florida flight were answered with the "information and understanding" staff had of the arrangement at the time, Trebilcock said. And a private plane was chosen, as opposed to commercial, because of security concerns, he said. 

"As you know, the threats against the governor’s life are well-documented," the legal counsel wrote. "Commercial flights were deemed not reasonable for security reasons at that time."

The campaign also paid for Whitmer's Jan. 19 and 21 flights to and from the Washington, D.C., inauguration of President Joe Biden, when she took a non-commercial plane operated by Solomon Plumbing Co. The value of the flight was $22,670, Trebilcock said. 

"For the reasons discussed above, and even though the trip was in furtherance of the governor’s official duties, the Whitmer for Governor campaign committee issued a check for the value of the flight," he said. 

The cost of both flights, Trebilcock said, will be reported on the governor's July 2021 campaign finance report. 

Trebilcock maintained Whitmer's candidate committee was a valid source for the payments because state law allows such committees to pay for expenses "paid or incurred in carrying out the business of an elective office." Were it not for her elected office, Whitmer wouldn't have to incur extra costs to travel with a security detail, he said.

But conservatives still questioned the use of campaign funds for the trip, arguing it was a way to avoid federal violations and instead deal with regulators at the state level.

"Is Whitmer's new strategy to instead make the payment an illegal use of campaign funds, a state campaign violation?" said Tori Sachs, executive director for the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund. "That way (Secretary of State) Jocelyn Benson can just give her a slap on the wrist instead of federal investigations and real consequences? How many other private flights ahs Whitmer taken and who paid for those?"

Johnson last week asked Whitmer to answer more than 40 questions regarding her March 12-15 trip to Florida or face further investigation by the committee.

The 43-question letter inquiring about the flight, the purpose of the trip and arrangements made in Michigan while Whitmer was away is a "reasonable and important" request to give Michigan residents "certainty that their governor is following proper procedures and acting within the bounds of the law."

Whitmer has been under scrutiny since April 19, when the trip came to light. It was later revealed the plane she took was owned by three of Michigan's most prominent political donors. The governor has said she was visiting her father, Richard, who lives in Florida and has a chronic illness. 

Whitmer's administration said earlier this month that a nonprofit organization that raised money for her inauguration primarily funded the private plane. Michigan Transition 2019, a social welfare nonprofit, chartered the private plane, according to an email memo from Whitmer's Chief of Staff JoAnne Huls. The group paid $27,521 for travel over the first 14 days of May, Huls disclosed.

Huls' memo indicates Whitmer paid the nonprofit $855 for her seat on the March 12 and March 15 flights and used a charter plane because of security concerns.  

Michigan Transition 2019 initially was targeted for the payment because its "social welfare" purposes allow it to lessen "the use of taxpayers' dollars and the burden of government" for expenses like staff, travel, food, research and postage, Trebilcock said. 

But Trebilcock noted that because PVS is a Part 91 operator under Federal Aviation Administration rules, it can only accept reimbursements from a candidate campaign committee. 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Craig Mauger contributed.

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