(The Center Square) – Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Director Robert Gordon on Thursday said approving a Democrat-connected firm for contact tracing was a mistake, but not politically motivated.
Gordon said MDHHS first had local health departments attempt contact tracing but those agencies didn’t have enough resources, requiring MDHHS to seek a vendor.
Rushed by a rising number of COVID-19 cases and under pressure, MDHHS picked a firm controlled by Democrat consultant Michael Kolehouse, who sent an unsolicited statement of work.
“K2K Consulting, LLC was the only firm considered,” the Auditor General’s report of the contract said, noting the bidding process wasn’t competitive because the state was exempt from soliciting bids under a state of emergency.
MDHHS officials said they picked Kolehouse’s company because it was the best option but then switched to a separate entity still under the umbrella of Kolehouse’s K2K Consulting LLC.
Gordon said they wanted to preserve their work by switching from a political entity, Kolehouse Strategies, to Great Lakes Community Engagement, which works with nonprofits, and change platforms from NGP VAN to Every Action Van.
“In both cases, it was fundamentally the same owner entity,” Gordon said.
The shift was “meaningful” but was a mistake, Gordon said.
“We at MDHHS made a mistake entering this contact,” Gordon said. “I take responsibility for this mistake.”
Gordon said officials didn't want to delay contact tracing further, a crucial part of reopening the economy.
“The decision had no political motive,” Gordon said. “The only goal in contacting this firm and working with them was to do the work and well.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s communications director Zack Pohl responded, “Yes, that’s better,” about the lateral contract shift on April 17, according to emails obtained by Bridge.
Whitmer canceled the $194,000 contract on April 21, claiming she had just then found out about the vendor’s connections.
“Rather than judging MDHHS on this one flawed effort, I ask you to judge us on the totality of our work,” Gordon said.
Another concern was about 2,000 contact tracing volunteers' data entered into Kolehouse’s database.
“We have requested the destruction of the data and that request to my knowledge is pending,” Gordon said.
Emails show then-Labor and Economic Opportunity employee Ed Duggan introduced Kolehouse to Andrea Taverna, an MDHHS senior advisor on Opioid Strategy.
Gordon said MDHHS believed Duggan would know a firm skilled in handling contact tracing.
Duggan now works for presumptive Democrat presidential nominee Joe Biden, who had been considering Whitmer as his vice-presidential running mate before settling on U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris.
Taverna refused to cooperate with the Auditor General’s investigation or testify in the committee hearing Thursday and referred investigators to her attorney.
Rep. Vanessa Guerra, D-Bridgeport Township, argued the questions were a waste of time for a canceled contract on which no money was spent and said lawmakers should be focusing on solutions in case of a second wave of COVID-19.
On Thursday, the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund (MFF) asked Whitmer to require Taverna to testify and cooperate immediately with investigations or to fire her, saying the Auditor General’s report “only scratched the surface of the corruption.”
“High ranking political officials with nothing to hide don’t 'lawyer up,' and they don’t hide from investigators,” MFF Executive Director Tony Daunt said in a statement.
“More than ever during the COVID-19 public health crisis, Michigan taxpayers and the families that MDHHS is meant to serve deserve answers from Andrea Taverna. They deserve a department they can trust. So far Whitmer’s delivered neither.”