Legislature’s taxpayer-funded contract with GOP-connected firm in Whitmer suit raises transparency concerns

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (front center), Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (left), Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist (back center) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (right) at the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

For months, Republican legislative leaders have slammed Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, alleging a lack of transparency while she exercised emergency powers, even going so far as to create a special oversight committee to investigate her administration’s COVID-19 response.  

One of the issues Republican lawmakers have zeroed in on is the Democratic administration last month awarded contracts to firms with Democratic ties for contact tracing efforts, which were quickly rescinded after backlash. 

Then state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) announced last month the Legislature is suing Whitmer over her emergency powers, even as House and Senate Democratic caucuses opposed the move. It’s considered a long-shot case by most legal experts and they’ve already suffered a defeat in the Court of Claims.

“We also called for transparency from the Governor,” Shirkey said in a May statement when Whitmer announced more details on reopening the state. “Michigan residents deserve to see behind the curtain and understand how decisions impacting their lives and livelihoods are being made.”

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The Legislature’s lawsuit was filed May 6. The firm that the Legislature chose was Troy-based Bush Seyferth & Paige PLLC, also known as BSP Law, which has substantial connections to the Republican Party. 

Yet Republican leaders have yet to release any details about the contract — how it was awarded, how many firms were considered or how much the firm is billing per hour. Any communications with groups or political figures about the contract haven’t been disclosed.

While taxpayer dollars are being used to fund the suit, the Michigan Legislature is not subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Neither the House Business Office nor the Secretary of the Senate responded to requests for further information.

Spokespersons for Shirkey and Chatfield did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did BSP Law.

The public has the right to know that information, said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist with the Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy think tank Public Citizen.

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“Whenever taxpayer money is involved, full transparency of any conflicts of interest is not only expected, [but] the public has a right to demand it,” said Holman. “The public has a right to know when leaders in the state Legislature use public funds for the personal gain of party operatives and friends. Only with transparency can these types of conflicts of interest be stopped.”

Aaron McKean of the D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center says the opacity of the situation issue speaks to a larger, more systemic issue in which Michiganders are in the dark about who is influencing lawmakers and policy.

“When you don’t have transparency about who has this influence, that really undermines the democratic process,” McKean said. “… It’s really important that it’s clear who is doing that oversight and who’s pulling the strings.”

GOP ties

BSP Law’s GOP ties run long and deep. Co-founder Raymond Kethledge is a U.S. Court of Appeals judge who was appointed by former President George W. Bush in 2008.

President Donald Trump even put him on his 2018 short list for the U.S. Supreme Court, with conservative radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt calling Kethledge “Gorsuch 2.0,” as in the president’s first high court pick, Neil Gorsuch. Kethledge was eventually passed over in favor of now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

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One of the firm’s partners and founding members, Patrick Seyferth, has been a major Republican donor. From 2002 to 2017, state campaign finance filings show that Seyferth donated a total of $6,150 to a number of GOP candidates for state office.

That includes a $2,500 donation to former Lt. Gov. Brian Calley in 2017, a total of $1,650 to former Gov. Rick Snyder across both of his gubernatorial campaigns and $1,200 to wealthy GOP gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos in 2006.

Seyferth also donated a total of $2,300 to two Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate, Spencer Abraham and Clark Durant.

Frankie Dame, another BSP attorney heading the lawsuit, has worked for the Michigan Republican Party and Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette, who lost the governorship to Whitmer in 2018. In 2012, Dame was the director of a “victory office” in Monroe in support of former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in 2012, which was run in conjunction with the Republican National Committee.

Yet another attorney from BSP, Bill Stone, was hired into Shirkey’s office last April as his Senate majority general counsel.

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Whitmer admin. contract

Republicans awarding a contract to Bush Seyferth & Paige — and the lack of transparency — has some parallels to the Whitmer administration hiring Democratic-linked firms Great Lakes Community Engagement and EveryAction VAN to lead COVID-19 contact tracing efforts in April.

However, the administration did disclose the amount of the contracts, which were supposed to be almost $200,000 over the course of two months.

The move led to a barrage of complaints leveled against Whitmer and state officials by GOP leadership, who had strongly criticized the hiring decision for the appearance of partisanship.

“I can’t believe this is the only instance where this administration has made questionable decisions about awarding contracts that may be political in nature during this time of unprecedented executive power,” said House Appropriations Chair Shane Hernandez (R-Port Huron) at the time.

Whitmer terminated that contract the following day to “take out any speculation” about partisan intent. On May 9, the state awarded new contracts worth more than $1 million to two Detroit companies, Rock Connections, LLC and Deloitte. Rock Connections has financial ties to Quicken Loans founder and billionaire Dan Gilbert, a prominent GOP donor.

Nessel to probe canceled state contract with Dem firm for COVID-19 contact tracing

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel agreed on May 1 to launch a probe into the original contracts at the urging of state Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) and other Republicans. 

Republican members of the bicameral panel formed to probe the Whitmer’s administration COVID-19 response have said they plan to conduct their own investigation.

State budget woes

As for the Legislature’s contract with Bush Seyferth & Paige, that has not been subject to public or governmental scrutiny thus far. Spokespersons for Shirkey and Chatfield did not answer inquiries about how much taxpayer money is being spent by the Legislature on the law firm.

But some Democratic leaders say that has to happen.

“The people have a right to know how much taxpayer money legislative Republicans are forking over to their bigwig lawyers just to pick a fight with the governor during a deadly global pandemic,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint).

State faces $6.3B budget shortfall as COVID-19 craters revenues

The BSP Law contract comes at a time when the state is facing its most disastrous budget crisis in decades, with state fiscal leaders pegging the shortfall at $6.3 billion over two fiscal years. The state’s finances were already in poor shape due to COVID-19, but are likely to take a bigger hit while responding to a major flood event last week in Midland and surrounding areas.

House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) said GOP leaders have a responsibility to be transparent with Michiganders about the process of hiring BSP Law, especially during a public health crisis like COVID-19.

Greig, the House Democratic caucus, the Michigan Senate Democratic caucus and the Michigan Nurses Association have all filed amicus briefs in support of Whitmer in the lawsuit.

“Michiganders are worrying about their livelihood, yet legislative Republicans are distracting time and attention away from the state’s response to COVID-19 by squandering scarce taxpayer resources,” Greig said. “If they insist on moving ahead with this political theater, the least they can do is be transparent about how they are conducting this suit.”

Greig added that Republicans have wasted opportunities to invest in schools, infrastructure, unemployment, health care and more during the COVID-19 outbreak to instead spend state dollars on legal services for “partisan power grabs.”

“The people of Michigan deserve a full accounting of how this law firm was chosen. When the people of our state are struggling financially, they deserve to know how their Republican leaders are spending their tax dollars,” she said.

A spokesperson for Whitmer’s office declined to comment on the contract.

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State of the suit

Amid sharp criticism from Democratic lawmakers, the GOP-led Legislature on April 30 passed two resolutions authorizing Shirkey and Chatfield to sue Whitmer if she again extended Michigan’s state of emergency declaration without legislative approval.

Whitmer did just that later that day — and, as promised, GOP lawmakers filed their lawsuit against her less than a week later.

Their suit alleges that Whitmer has unlawfully wielded her powers as governor by enforcing a “one-size-fits-all” approach for the state’s response to COVID-19, and by unilaterally taking emergency actions without getting approval from the state Legislature first.

But many of the state’s legal experts have said that Whitmer is using her emergency powers exactly as they were intended. 

The state Legislature’s lawsuit against Whitmer was dealt a blow last week, when Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens called the GOP’s arguments “meritless” and ruled in favor of Whitmer. Stephens also reaffirmed the constitutionality of Whitmer’s executive actions on COVID-19, which lean on two Michigan emergency power laws from 1945 and 1976.

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Ananich said it was “time to put this petty fight to bed.

“Republicans in the Legislature have made their point and their point has been refuted, so they need to stop spending taxpayer money on this politically-motivated fight against the governor,” he added. “We’re headed in the right direction and will continue to head that way if we do this right and we do it together.”

However, Republicans aren’t ready to move on. The Legislature appealed the decision the next day, along with a request for the Michigan Supreme Court to grant an “emergency-bypass review” of the case. 

“If ever there were a case that warranted this court’s immediate involvement, then this would be it,” their filing reads.

Whitmer rescinded the stay-home order on Monday, while the states of emergency and disaster declarations remain in place until June 19.