Whitmer’s chief of staff takes blame for lack of ‘clarity’ on Florida trip, says travel fund paid for it

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s private round trip to Florida to see her ailing father was paid for from a fund that’s used for travel not covered by tax dollars, her chief of staff said Friday. The cost was $27,521, with Whitmer personally paying $855 of that amount, according to the Michigan […]

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s private round trip to Florida to see her ailing father was paid for from a fund that’s used for travel not covered by tax dollars, her chief of staff said Friday.

The cost was $27,521, with Whitmer personally paying $855 of that amount, according to the Michigan Transition 2019 website, which lists donations and expenses. The nonprofit was initially formed for inauguration events.

The lack of details has dogged Whitmer since the March trip was revealed in April, first reported by Charlie LeDuff on the No BS News Hour podcast.

“As chief of staff, I acknowledge we could have done a better job of answering questions about this trip with more clarity while also balancing the need to protect the governor’s security, and for that I take responsibility,” JoAnne Huls told senior staff in a memo.

Whitmer left Michigan on March 12 and returned on March 15.

“She continued to carry out her duties as governor while she assisted her father with household duties like cooking and cleaning. … The governor’s flight was not a gift, not paid for at taxpayer expense, and was done in compliance with the law,” Huls said. “The governor paid for her seat on the flight with her own personal money.”

The Associated Press last week confirmed flights to West Palm Beach using aviation-tracking website Flightradar24. The Gulfstream 280 business jet is registered to Air Eagle, whose agent is John Nicholson, executive vice president of Detroit-based PVS Chemicals, according to state records.

The Republican National Committee responded to the report with a terse statement Friday night.

“Gretchen Whitmer’s web of half-truths and side-stepped questions is coming undone and it’s clear that Michiganders need answers. What else is Gretchen Whitmer hiding?” said Preya Samsundar, RNC spokesperson

On May 7, when asked who paid, Whitmer said: “I’ve said everything I’m going to say about my trip to go check on my father. It was a quick trip. It was an important family reason for doing it, and I’ve got nothing to add.”

Less than three weeks after returning from Florida, Whitmer warned the public about traveling over spring break, particularly to that state, amid a surge of COVID-19 cases in Michigan. Two of her top aides, health director Elizabeth Hertel and chief operating officer Tricia Foster, still visited beaches in Alabama and Florida over spring break despite state-issued guidance to avoid out-of-state travel.

She said her office does not discuss her travel because of an “incredible number” of death threats. A group of men is charged with plotting to kidnap her over her coronavirus restrictions.

Huls said in a statement:

“Due to ongoing security and public health concerns, we made a decision to use a chartered flight for this trip.  The governor’s flight was not a gift, not paid for at taxpayer expense, and was done in compliance with the law.  The cost to charter the flight was paid for by the Michigan Transition 2019, d/b/a Executive Office Account, which defrays the cost of the Governor’s travel when it’s consistent with the Account’s purposes and not covered by taxpayers.” 

More information can be found on The Executive Office Account HERE.

Huls said Whitmer took her father, Richard Whitmer, to a medical procedure Monday at the University of Michigan.

“After the governor returned to Michigan, her father’s health deteriorated, and his physicians at the University of Michigan asked him to return home early to be re-evaluated,” she said in her statement. “On Monday of this week, the governor personally took her father to Ann Arbor, where Mr. Whitmer underwent a medical procedure to start intravenous antibiotics. Mr.  Whitmer’s procedure was successful, and we are hopeful that his condition improves.”

-The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Please read below for the full statement from Huls:

“I wanted to reach out and thank everyone for your hard work this week. We made our first major step forward on the governor’s Vacc to Normal plan by passing 55% of Michiganders getting their first dose of the safe and effective vaccines, and the state is now vaccinating 12-15-year-olds against COVID-19. Today DHHS signed an order lifting the state’s mask mandate for Michiganders who have been vaccinated.  These are important milestones that we should pause to celebrate, and while we have more work ahead, I know our staff is committed to ending this pandemic so we can all get back to normal more quickly.

“I also wanted to take a moment to underscore this administration’s commitment to transparency. Today we posted a copy of the governor’s federal tax return, personal financial statement, and travel and time report for 2020 on www.michigan.gov/sunshine ahead of the new tax deadline next week. This is a practice that began when the governor was a candidate, and Governor Whitmer is the first sitting governor to voluntarily disclose personal financial information online. We are hopeful that the Michigan Legislature will soon pass bipartisan legislation that requires elected officials to share similar financial information with the public.

“While this administration continues to make state government more open and accessible, I want to acknowledge that we must continue holding ourselves to a high ethical standard. As some of you know, the governor’s father has been battling a severe chronic illness for several years, and the governor has publicly acknowledged that she flew during a time when Michigan had some of the lowest COVID numbers in the region. While she was there, she continued to carry out her duties as governor while she assisted her father with household duties like cooking and cleaning. Given the extraordinary and ongoing threats to the life and safety of the governor and her family, we do not generally comment on the governor’s personal schedule. However, I fully expect Republican party officials will continue to make political attacks against the governor and her family, so I wanted you to have the facts:

  • The governor left Michigan on Friday, March 12, and returned on Monday, March 15.  Excluding days devoted in part to travel, the governor was visiting her father for two days, and continued to work throughout her trip.  Throughout the pandemic and during  the trip, the governor has followed COVID-19 protocols. Michigan has not had any limitations on travel for nearly a year.
  • During the trip, Michigan’s daily positivity rate ranged from a seven-day average of 5.3 % – 6.2%.   For comparison, Michigan’s daily positivity rate peaked at a seven-day average of 18.5% on April 8 this year. This information is publicly available at https://mistartmap.info/
  • Due to ongoing security and public health concerns, we made a decision to use a chartered flight for this trip.  The governor’s flight was not a gift, not paid for at taxpayer expense, and was done in compliance with the law.  The cost to charter the flight was paid for by the Michigan Transition 2019, d/b/a Executive Office Account, which defrays the cost of the Governor’s travel when it’s consistent with the Account’s purposes and not covered by taxpayers.  The Executive Office Account publicly discloses donors and expenses online  at https://michigantransition.org/sunshine/.
  • The governor paid for her seat on the flight with her own personal money. 
  • After the governor returned to Michigan, her father’s health deteriorated, and his physicians at the University of Michigan asked him to return home early to be re-evaluated. On Monday of this week, the governor personally took her father to Ann Arbor, where Mr. Whitmer underwent a medical procedure to start intravenous antibiotics. Mr.  Whitmer’s procedure was successful, and we are hopeful that his condition improves.

“The past year has been challenging for everyone. This executive office has faced challenges unlike any in our state’s history, from a pandemic, to floods, to a racial reckoning, to a kidnapping plot and insurrection threats.  As Chief of Staff, I acknowledge we could have done a better job of answering questions about this trip with more clarity while also balancing the need to protect the governor’s security, and for that I take responsibility. Going forward, we will stay laser-focused on vaccinating more Michiganders so we can jumpstart our economy and get back to normal.”

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