DHHS Director: Contract with political firm was a ‘mistake’, not politically motivated

DHHS Director Robert Gordon, July 26, 2019 | Nick Manes

During a coronavirus oversight committee meeting Thursday, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Director Robert Gordon was under fire for contracting with a Democratic consulting firm to perform contact tracing in the early months of the pandemic. 

“I take responsibility for that mistake. Governor Whitmer did the right thing in instructing us to cancel the contract before even one dollar went to the vendor,” Gordon said. 

In April, the state awarded a $194,000 no-bid contract to Kolehouse Strategies, a Democratic campaign consulting firm run by west Michigan consultant Mike Kolehouse.

After reports from news outlets and criticism from Michigan Republicans, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer canceled the contract later that month and replaced the firm with Detroit-based Rock Connections and Deloitte in May.

Whitmer said the initial contract wasn’t approved through the State Emergency Operations Center, which all other contracts during the pandemic have been.

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However, Gordon said “politics had nothing to do with it,” and said that the mistake in hiring a firm with political ties was that it would “distract from the issue.”

“Our priority was to move quickly and save lives within the law,” Gordon said. 

Since May, the department has made more than 90,000 calls to contacts related to more than 19,000 COVID-19 cases, Gordon said. 

As of Thursday, 90,392 Michiganders have tested positive for COVID-19 and 6,289 have died from the virus. Thursday saw the highest daily case count — 1,121 cases — since May.  

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Committee Chair Rep. Matt Hall (R-Marshall) questioned Gordon on whether there was any partisan foul play between the Democratic consulting firm, DHHS and the governor.

But Gordon said the decision was an oversight by the department while they worked long hours under pressure to control the spread of COVID-19 during the height of the outbreak. 

“It’s easy to make it seem that everyone knew and that everyone should’ve known what was going on, but we were incredibly busy trying to set up a process for contact tracing,” Gordon said. “We missed some things we shouldn’t have, but we’ve done an effective job in the meantime.”

Another issue that was highlighted during the two-hour committee meeting was the role of Andrea Taverna, a senior adviser to Whitmer on opioid strategy and a former chief of staff to the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama administration, who was put in charge of the department’s contact tracing program. 

According to internal emails obtained by The Detroit News in July, Taverna took the Kolehouse recommendation from Ed Duggan, then-senior adviser in the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity and son of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Taverna has declined to be interviewed by the coronavirus oversight committee. 

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Committee member Rep. Vanessa Guerra (D-Saginaw) said the committee was spending too much time on the canceled contract. 

“We have spent an hour and 37 minutes criticizing a contract that we didn’t even spend a dollar on,” she said.

Gordon said that while he considers the initial contract with Kolehouse a mistake, he doesn’t believe it should overshadow the work done by DHHS during the pandemic. 

“Rather than judging MDHHS on this one flawed effort, I ask you to judge us on the totality of our work,” he said.