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LANSING, Mich. (ChurchMilitant.com) - After signing a no-bid contract with a left-leaning consultancy, the state government of Michigan abruptly rescinded the agreement for tracking residents electronically after political controversy and media attention swirled.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who is considered a potential running mate for likely Democratic presidential nominee Joseph Biden, was at the center of criticism that she had resorted to Democrat-run firms to obtain, collect and monitor sensitive health data on residents with the supposed purpose of aiding efforts to stem the spread of the Wuhan virus.
The contract was worth almost $200,000 for Great Lakes Community Engagement, in coordination with the NGP VAN firm, to trace tens of thousands of persons diagnosed with the virus and those with whom they have had contact, supposedly to slow the pandemic. Michigan has been one of the regions most affected by the virus, especially in Detroit. To support the effort, Michigan planned to begin training more than 2,200 volunteers to assist.
"The Department of Health and Human Services doesn't have a political bone in their theoretical body," Whitmer said during a press conference last week. "When it was brought to my attention, I told them to cancel it. This was an unnecessary distraction. Leadership is about solving problems. The correct process was not followed."
Afterwards, Michigan GOP leader Laura Cox called for the release of all state e-mails related to the awarding of the contract, saying Whitmer could not "simply plead ignorance." Republicans are asking the governor to reveal who signed the contract and whether any citizen's information may have been compromised.
Cell phone technologies and video observation are used in communist China to track citizen's movements, while Singapore and Taiwan have also used similar methods. Apple and Google have in mind a way to convert cell phones into trackers so that governments can identify those diagnosed with the Wuhan virus and alert others who may have been exposed.
According to an official press release on Monday, "Contact tracing is an essential public health tool and will help determine and limit the spread of COVID-19 in our state," said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health of the state. "This effort is also giving Michiganders an important way to contribute to crisis response and we appreciate their willingness to step up for their communities, pitching in selflessly for work that will help us all."
The state's Department of Health and Human Services noted that it was contracting Great Lakes Community Engagement, "a firm that specializes in outreach campaigns to engage citizens, and EveryAction VAN, a voter/individual contact platform used by nonprofits, to provide software to help organize remote phone banking and track information and contacts."
Critics feared that knowing citizens' social networks can be useful to politicians. Michigan Rep. Beau LaFave said, according to The Washington Post, "If you are now giving them the information that says on March 25, John was hanging out with Sally ... we now know John's sphere of influence for who he can talk to to get Gretchen Whitmer or Joe Biden elected."
According to the Washington Free Beacon, Livingston County Commissioner Wes Nakagiri said that he has never seen such anger among conservatives, saying "Where you've got this entity working with governmental bodies, dumping huge networks of information into one database ... They're asking for contact information, they're asking for who else lives in the house — it's troubling that this information is being stored in a Democrat-aligned database."
Whitmer paid $5,000 to the NGP VAN company during her election campaign, which was later associated with the tracking contract.
A Michigan state health department spokesperson tried to diminish criticisms, saying that the contract featured a "strict data use agreement that only allows the data collected to be used for this contact tracing project." It is because of the current state of emergency, said spokeswoman Lynn Sutfin, that Michigan's normal procurement rules requiring competitive bidding are not in effect. She claimed that the firm would have destroyed all data upon completion of the project.
Facing blowback from Republicans and the media, the state announced on Tuesday that another contractor was being hired. "The executive office is uncomfortable with this vendor for the same reason others are. The public needs to have confidence that this tracing work is being done by a nonpartisan firm," said press secretary Tiffany Brown. She added, "The state is committed to ensuring this important tracing work can begin quickly to help save lives, while also ensuring that public health data is safe and secure." State officials claim that the firm had not yet begun to work on the project.
Whitmer's spokeswoman told the Washington Free Beacon that Michigan had signed with a firm owned by political operative Mike Kolehouse, which in turn contracted NGP VAN. Kolehouse did not respond to a request for comment.
Great Lakes Community Engagement (GLCE) is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Kolehouse is the owner of K2K Consulting that is tied to both GLCE and Kolehouse Strategies, which work on leftist causes. The website for the latter is currently private.
GLCE had intended to use software from NGP VAN, a political consultancy that provided the e-mail services of Whitmer's election campaign, and which calls itself the "leading technology provider to Democratic and progressive campaigns and organizations."
Through EveryAction, NGP VAN also provides services to the leftist Rock the Vote group, the pro-abortion National Women's Law Center and Reproductive Health Access Project, as well as the anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace. As a recent college graduate, Kolehouse was active with the Occupy movement in the Grand Rapids area.
On the ZipRecruiter website, Kolehouse strategies is described as a political consulting firm that is now partnered with Fair and Equal Michigan to collect petition signatures to modify Michigan's civil rights protection act to "finally prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people" with a ballot initiative this fall.
The initiative, it said, would "clarify that the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act's existing prohibitions on discriminatory practices, policies, and customs in the exercise of civil rights prohibits discrimination based upon sexual orientation or gender identity or expression."
The Michigan Pastors Alliance has denounced the initiative, fearing that Christian leaders are unfairly targeted.
Revealing his leftist credentials last month on social media, Kolehouse wrote of President Trump: "I hope he gets coronavirus ASAP," and "Can someone do the country a favor and cough on that man."
According to The Washington Post, he would not answer questions about the contract nor provide the names of former clients or examples of his company's work in fundraising or voter contacts. As of Thursday, his LinkedIn profile was not available on the internet, nor was his Facebook page.
According to the Grand Valley State University (Michigan) website, Kolehouse states that he is a 2010 graduate and later worked on several campaigns. He worked for the Michigan Educators Association (a teachers union) in support of candidates for the Grand Rapids school board, and the leftist Service Employees International Union. He has also been associated with the leftist Equity PAC of Michigan.
EveryAction and NGP VAN are operated by the same people, but each group has different emphases. They claimed that they were providing data collection software but would not collect or store the collected data. According to The Washington Post, Stu Trevelyan, chief executive of both EveryAction and NGP VAN, said the firms would have earned merely $3,500 out of the $194,250 payment, and only contribute a fraction of the work. The state, the firm stated, did not directly contract it for services.