By SIMON D. SCHUSTER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network
LANSING (May 14, 2021) — A private jet Gov. Gretchen Whitmer used to fly to Florida in March was chartered by the nonprofit created to fund her inauguration, her office disclosed in an email Friday evening. One aide's description of the nonprofit's use is akin to an administrative account, and despite prior pledges of transparency, the picture offered of the nonprofit's finances is far from complete.
“The governor's flight was not a gift, not paid for at taxpayer expense, and was done in compliance with the law,” JoAnne Huls, Whitmer’s chief of staff, wrote in an email first obtained by MIRS News.
In the email, Huls said Whitmer paid $855 for her seat out of her own pocket. The flight cost $27,521, according to a disclosure posted online. Huls referred to the nonprofit as an “executive office account.”
Huls wrote that the nonprofit, Michigan Transition 2019, “defrays the cost of the Governor’s travel when it’s consistent with the account’s purposes and not covered by taxpayers.”
Whitmer had previously said she traveled to Florida to care for her ailing father and had worked throughout the trip, but had dodged specific questions about who had paid for use of the private jet.
The scrutiny originated in part from the ownership of the jet, a Gulfstream 280. It is shared by some of Michigan’s wealthiest families — and most prolific political donors, as first reported by The Detroit News. They include the Moroun family, which owns the Ambassador Bridge, and the Cotton family, which until 2018 owned MeridianHealth, a major medicaid provider.
What remains unclear, however, is why the expense didn’t appear in these online disclosures until today, when a document containing the expense was first uploaded. The trip was taken on March 12 and returned March 15, according to flight records. Huls said the decision was made to use a chartered flight “due to ongoing security and public health concerns.” The page of disclosures does not appear to have been on the site for long. According to the archives in the WayBack Machine, no such page existed in January 2021 or March 2020.
Michigan Transition 2019 is a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit, a popular vehicle for dark money in elections, and can accept unlimited corporate contributions. Its last donation was reportedly received in September 2020, $25,000 from telecommunications corporation Charter.
Many members of the legislature have similar nonprofits, used ostensibly as “administrative accounts,” and rarely reveal contributors to the organizations. Former Governor Rick Snyder had similar nonprofits which also attracted scrutiny.
In the email, Huls said “the executive office account publicly discloses donors and expenses online,” but the picture provided of the nonprofit’s finances are far from complete. In the last available disclosure to the Internal Revenue Service, at the end of 2018, the organization reported taking in more than $2.5 million in contributions and had more than $1.3 million in cash.
Since it began posting disclosures in March 2019 (when it noted a $1.5 million “carryover balance,”) it has received slightly less than $250,000 while spending more than $1 million, according to its own disclosures. The reported expenses are particularly vague: January's document categorized nearly $21,000 of the organization's spending simply as “gifts.”
In 2019, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network previously reported on a list of inaugural donors, but it isn’t known whether this is a complete picture of the nonprofit’s' funders, and that list is no longer available online.