Nessel: Contact tracing investigation clears DHHS of criminal conduct

    Attorney General Dana Nessel | Susan J. Demas

    In the early months of Michigan’s COVID-19 outbreak last spring, the state rushed to establish a statewide contact tracing program that would help contain the virus — resulting in a Democratic political firm being hired and then quickly fired due to Republican backlash over what was perceived as an improperly partisan decision.

    State Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) had asked Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, to investigate the matter in late April. Eight months later, Nessel announced Wednesday that her department found no evidence of criminal conduct.

    Jim Runestad

    “I appreciate the concern raised by Sen. Runestad but I also appreciate the reality under which this contract was pursued,” Nessel said. “With the benefit of hindsight, there may have been a better way to accomplish the Department’s ultimate purpose but we found no evidence of criminality.

    “Instead, it appears the imperfect process used here was mainly a result of the Department’s attempt to get a contact-tracing program underway as quickly as possible in light of the dire public health crisis,” she said.

    That conclusion was borne out in a 29-page report, which examined GOP allegations that the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) potentially broke the law on April 20 by rewarding a no-bid contract worth about $200,000 to Great Lakes Community Engagement. The Democratic consultant-owned campaign outreach company would have used software developed by another Democratically-tied organization (Every Action VAN).

    Following swift backlash from Michigan Republicans, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer canceled the contract the next day and acknowledged that the contract should have been approved by the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) rather than the DHHS.

    Two new contracts with Rock Connections LLC and Deloitte were awarded soon after once they went through a SEOC review process.

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

    On Wednesday, Nessel’s announcement of the investigation findings noted that Runestad “did not provide the department with any information, documents or other evidence to further the investigation” when he requested the inquiry in April.

    The department proceeded with a review, interviewing 17 individuals and examining thousands of documents as part of the investigation.

    The inquiry eventually found no evidence of wilful violation of procurement rules, nor any evidence of willful neglect of duty, misconduct in office or fraud.

    “It is our recommendation that any request for criminal charges arising from the procurement of the contract to perform contact-tracing for COVID-19 positive cases … be denied,” the report reads.

    Copies of the report were also provided to Runestad, Whitmer and DHHS Director Robert Gordon.

    Laina G. Stebbins
    Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, immigration and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).