Michigan House Republicans mull investigation into Whitmer flight paid for by nonprofit

Posted at 6:37 PM, May 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-17 18:37:26-04

LANSING, Mich. (WXYZ) — "It was not a vacation and it was not a gift,” Governor Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday, after spending weeks defending her March trip to Florida.

She said the weekend retreat was to care for her ill father. Republican leaders say that’s no excuse.

“Here she goes, unvaccinated to a state where she’s telling people not to travel to because you may bring the bug back, and that’s exactly what she did,” said Republican State Representative Jack O'Malley of Lake Ann. “I get it, she’s a good daughter. But on the other hand, she’s a Governor and she’s supposed to lead by example.”

The Republican Chair of the House Oversight Committee says they haven't ruled out an investigation into how the flight was funded.

“It’s definitely something in consideration," said Republican State Representative Steven Jackson of Wayland. "But I would like to give the administration the opportunity to answer questions before we go down that road.”

The FAA said the company that owns the plane isn’t licensed to charter flights, but that it’s still premature to say whether the flight violated any FAA regulations.

The Governor's office said they chartered the flight due to safety concerns, and the Governor paid $855 dollars for her own seat. However a nonprofit used to fund her inauguration paid another $27,564.96.

"Presidents have inauguration funds and they generally work like big slush funds,” said Richard Hall, a Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Michigan. "The legal use of those funds is ethically questionable.”

Hall is an expert in campaign finance and says many politicians have nonprofits to defray certain expenses.

“This is not uncommon, it's really not all that scandalous," Hall said. "It just simply reflects on that we need higher ethical standards when it comes to these organizations.”

The organization, a 501c4 nonprofit founded as "Michigan Transition 2019," has since been referred to as the "Executive Office Account," and is considered a social welfare organization.

"This type of nonprofit has been used for a broad number of expenses,” said Simon Schuster, Executive Director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “People have become well trained, accountants attorneys and politicians, at really pushing the limits of what may fit.” Schuster says these nonprofits are used by many Michigan politicians, and their donors are often legally kept from the public eye.

“Whitmer wasn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here... The majority of the legislature in the last session was found to use accounts similar to this to pay for various ancillary expenses,” Schuster said. "Because these nonprofits exist outside the campaign finance system, they’re a lot less restricted in their uses.”

The Governor has voluntarily disclosed some of that information, releasing financial documents going back to March of 2019.

However, those documents show $1.5 million in carryover, likely other donations, still unaccounted for.

"Governor Whitmer has spoken about transparency and released partial information about this nonprofit,” Schuster said. "It's important for political accountability that we know who’s contributing to our elected officials.”

It’s unclear exactly when the nonprofit made their expenses and donors public online, but web archives show it was not on their website earlier this year.

“If this is going to go on, we need to know where the money is coming from,” Hall said. "It shouldn't have to be voluntary.”