Jacques: State must come clean about partisan contracts, hires

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

It’s a good thing Wes Nakagiri was paying attention.

Nakagiri, a Republican Livingston County commissioner, had signed up with the state of Michigan a few weeks ago as a volunteer to help with contact tracing efforts related to COVID-19. Contact tracing is a vital way to help prevent further spread of a virus. 

Yet when he went through training slides from the state Health and Human Services Department last week, he was surprised to find mention of NGP VAN in the documents. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks Wednesday.

That rang a bell for Nakagiri, as he’s been in the political arena for a while. NGP VAN “is the leading technology provider to Democratic and progressive campaigns,” according to its website

Nakagiri points to how the state already has a Michigan Disease Surveillance System and questions why the state would need a third-party database, and he's also identified several other companies that offer similar services to NGP VAN but are not politically affiliated or are more clearly bipartisan. 

NGP VAN has offered its services to many Michigan Democrats in their bids for office, including Congresswomen Haley Stevens, Elissa Slotkin, Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib. 

The training slides also mentioned that volunteers would be contacted by Kolehouse Strategies, a Michigan-based, Democratic-aligned company. 

The potential conflict of interest seemed pretty evident. So Nakagiri raised an alarm in an April 17 press release.

Once the media and other Republicans caught wind of this, the state started backtracking but in the process offered misleading statements about the chosen vendor. 

More:State changes vendors for COVID-19 data after furor over Democratic-connected firm

More:Whitmer: Controversial COVID-19 contract killed as 'unnecessary distraction'

This incident raises many questions, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other state officials owe citizens some answers about how this happened and who was involved. It’s essential that residents can have trust in the government gathering this sensitive health information and that it won’t be misused for any reason. 

During a coronavirus press briefing Wednesday, Whitmer says she was unaware of the NGP VAN contract, and when it was brought to her attention, she wanted the contract canceled. 

She says the MDHHS, which oversaw the contract, doesn’t have a “political bone in their theoretical body” but that officials should have gone through proper channels, including getting the contract approved by the State Emergency Operations Center. 

It's unclear how that step got overlooked. 

The State Emergency Operations Center issued a press release late Monday, stating “MDHHS is contracting with Great Lakes Community Engagement, a firm that specializes in outreach campaigns to engage citizens, and Every Action VAN, a voter/individual contact platform used by non-profits, to provide software to help organize remote phone banking and track information and contacts.”

Great Lakes Community Engagement is associated with Kolehouse Strategies, and Every Action VAN is affiliated with NGP VAN.  

It’s worth noting Democratic consultant Mike Kolehouse said in a March 27 Facebook post that he hoped President Trump would get “coronavirus ASAP.” 

Republican legislative leaders, along with the state GOP, are calling out Whitmer and her team and demanding they release all emails related to the contract. 

“The people of Michigan have a right to know how the governor and her staff are handling this crisis," said Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox.

They do, especially since Whitmer recently hired former Pete Buttigieg press secretary Chris Meagher to help her with national media, and to do work for the state Health Department. If he’s involved at all in this, the public needs to know. 

More:Jacques: Ex-Buttigieg PR aide guides Whitmer's spotlight

In the meantime, the state has to find a new vendor, which will cause an undetermined delay in contact tracing.

As for Nakagiri, he’s not sure yet if he’ll continue volunteering. He first wants assurance from the state that he “won’t be contributing to people losing the confidentiality of health information” for Democrats’ political gain. 

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques