The Michigan contract, worth nearly $200,000 over the next eight weeks, was signed Monday and allowed the hiring of a subcontractor to help with “contact tracing,” a process to track residents with the coronavirus and those with whom they have interacted.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services announced that the program would be run by Great Lakes Community Engagement, which is headed by a Michigan-based Democratic consultant. And it would be managed in coordination with EveryAction, a firm that is closely linked to NGP VAN, a technology provider that boasts that it powers “nearly every major Democratic campaign in America.”
The episode illustrates the political and ethical pitfalls involved in the large amounts of money suddenly being spent across the country to curb the coronavirus outbreak and boost the economy. Companies receiving aid and contracts have been criticized in recent weeks for ties to one party or the other, and Democrats and Republicans have wrangled over the best way to oversee the process.
By Tuesday afternoon, the state said it would move in a different direction, hiring a different vendor to oversee the project and another firm to provide the software infrastructure.
“The executive office is uncomfortable with this vendor for the same reason others are. The public needs to have confidence that this tracing work is being done by a nonpartisan firm,” said Tiffany Brown, the governor’s press secretary. “The state is committed to ensuring this important tracing work can begin quickly to help save lives, while also ensuring that public health data is safe and secure.”
The goal of the Michigan project is to track those who have the coronavirus and those they have been in contact with, an effort to slow the outbreak in a state that has been among the most affected by the disease. The state recently began training more than 2,200 volunteers who would help with the program, which would track tens of thousands of residents who have tested positive for the coronavirus.
A copy of materials given to volunteers showed that the tracing program was being run by NGP VAN, according to information reviewed by The Washington Post. The Post has been asking about the contract since Friday evening, and state officials indicated that NGP VAN, while initially under consideration, was no longer in the running for the contract. On Monday, the state announced that it was working with EveryAction, a firm linked to NGP VAN that caters more to nonprofit groups than to political campaigns.
State officials said that while the firm’s name was included on the training materials, it had not begun any of the actual work.
After the state announced the project Monday, Republican state legislators, including the chairman of the Michigan House Appropriations Committee, began raising questions about the spending.
The state’s Republican leadership has been at loggerheads with Whitmer, who has risen in national prominence and become a frequent target of President Trump, while facing protests from conservatives opposed to her actions to shut down the state to guard against the pandemic. Donald Trump Jr. on Tuesday afternoon tweeted about the Michigan contract, writing; “Oh Em Gee! This is some pretty scary stuff.”
Republicans said they were particularly concerned that a politically connected firm could use health data collection — and the tracing of people’s personal connections — to gain a political advantage.
Understanding an individual’s social network can be highly useful politically, they said.
“If you are now giving them the information that says on March 25, John was hanging out with Sally . . . we now know John’s sphere of influence for who he can talk to to get Gretchen Whitmer or Joe Biden elected,” said state Rep. Beau Matthew LaFave (R), chairman of the House’s homeland security committee.
Those who run EveryAction and NGP VAN were adamant that such a scenario would not occur. They said that they were only supplying the software for the data collection, not collecting or storing the information itself, and that they would be contractually prohibited from using the data for political purposes.
Stu Trevelyan, the chief executive of EveryAction and NGP VAN, said they were responsible for only a fraction of the contract, and would have earned just $3,500 out of the $194,250 payment. He also said that their work of providing software for governments attempting to combat the coronavirus was far from unusual, and that Republican-aligned firms have done so as well.
Because Michigan is operating under a state of emergency, normal procurement rules that require a competitive bidding process are not in effect, according to Lynn Sutfin, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.
“The firm will operate under a strict data-use agreement that only allows the data collected to be used for this contact tracing project,” Sutfin said. Upon completion of the project, she said, the firm will have to destroy all data.
GOP leaders were not convinced.
“I don’t trust this particular firm to fulfill that obligation,” LaFave said. “Maybe they are going to be altruistic and this was the best firm to choose. I find that hard to believe. . . . Why is it this particular firm that got the contract? There’s obviously an appearance of impropriety.”
NGP VAN has a voter database that is used by many top Democrats and has been utilized in several presidential campaigns, including Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 races and Hillary Clinton’s operation in 2016. While EveryAction is a separate brand — aimed at helping nonprofits — it is run by the same top officials.
“Our highly regarded [customer relationship management] software continues to serve thousands of nonprofits, including a number working on the coronavirus pandemic, and we are proud to be part of the solution and to make the world a better place,” the company said in a statement after the state voided the contract.
Whitmer’s political campaign has also been using NGP VAN, paying the group nearly $5,000 in the last five months of 2019, according to campaign finance reports.
EveryAction was to function as a subcontractor, and its work was being coordinated by Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Great Lakes Community Engagement.
Mike Kolehouse, who heads that firm, would not answer questions about the contract earlier Tuesday. He said Great Lakes Community Engagement has handled voter-contact and fundraising issues, but he declined to provide past clients or examples of the work.
Kolehouse has worked on several Democratic campaigns — including that of Shri Thanedar, one of Whitmer’s 2018 primary opponents. He has a consulting firm that aims to elect liberal candidates and features a complimentary quote from the state’s Democratic Party chairwoman. He has also posted numerous messages on social media about Trump.
“I hope he gets Coronavirus ASAP,” he wrote on Facebook last month. “Can someone do the country a favor and cough on that man.”