FAA doesn't punish air company over Whitmer's Florida flights

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Federal Aviation Administration has decided not to penalize the Detroit-based company that provided a plane for Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to use to travel to Florida in March.

The FAA began probing the controversial arrangement in May after the agency revealed that Air Eagle didn't have the certificate needed to offer chartered flights. Whitmer's Chief of Staff JoAnne Huls had said the administration used "a chartered flight" for the the governor's trip from Lansing to Florida to visit her father amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The investigation had concluded "after ensuring the company understood the applicable regulations and will follow them in the future," FAA spokeswoman Crystal Essiaw said  Monday.

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.

"The FAA investigated and made clear to the operator what the rules are for chartered flights," Essiaw said. "The operator took steps so a similar situation won’t occur in the future."

Whitmer's travel to Florida on March 12 came to light on April 19. Republicans criticized her for leaving the state during the pandemic while her administration had previously discouraged others from traveling to COVID-19 hot spots. The governor said she went to visit her father, Richard, who lives in Florida and has a chronic illness. 

The plane she traveled in was a Gulfstream G280 flown by Air Eagle. The company has ties to three prominent Michigan political families: the Nicholson family of PVS Chemicals; the Cotton family, which ran Meridian Health; and the Moroun family of the trucking company Central Transport. 

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

An individual who picked up a phone at Air Eagle's office Monday declined to comment on the conclusion of the FAA probe and declined to identify themselves.

Whitmer's administration initially said 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 a May email memo from Huls. The group paid $27,521 for travel over the first 14 days of May, Huls disclosed.

Later, after concerns were raised about Air Eagle's lack of a charter certificate, Whitmer's team changed course and said the money for the flights would come from her candidate committee. PVS Chemicals told Michigan Transition 2019 on May 17 that FAA rules prevented it from taking the $27,521 in reimbursement from the social welfare organization, said Christopher Trebilcock, legal counsel for the Whitmer for Governor candidate committee and Michigan Transition 2019. 

"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. 

Whitmer's campaign finance disclosure last month showed a $27,521 payment to PVS Chemicals for "a flight." The Michigan Republican Party previously filed a campaign finance complaint over the use of campaign funds for the flight.

The complaint will be handled by the office of Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat. 

"The FAA’s decision today was correct, and the operators should not be penalized after Governor Whitmer was caught and made an about face on her explanation for her secret trip,” Eric Ventimiglia, executive director for the conservative group Michigan Rising Action, said in a Monday statement. "Whitmer’s attempt to avoid accountability by making political ally Jocelyn Benson the judge and jury in her Florida scandal is as low as it gets in politics, but the hardworking people of Michigan expect her to be held to the same laws as they are.”

cmauger@detroitnews.com