Dishonesty and hypocrisy surrounding Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (D) secret “personal” trip to Florida are threatening the one-time rising star’s political future.
Like other Democrat governors, Whitmer opted to impose harsh restrictions in an attempt to deal with the coronavirus in 2020. After a spike in cases towards the end of the year, she reimposed many orders through her Department of Health and Human Services after her executive orders were ruled unconstitutional in October.
In early April 2021, as coronavirus variants were growing around the country, Whitmer warned Michiganders not to go to Florida for spring break.
But what she did not say at the time was that on a Friday morning, March 12, the governor who previously was on Joe Biden’s shortlist for vice president, took an unannounced trip to Florida for four days. She returned Monday evening, March 15. Whitmer was not fully vaccinated against Covid-19 at the time of the trip.
After news stories broke (including one reported exclusively by Breitbart News) that two of Whitmer’s top aides traveled to Florida and Alabama for spring break, Whitmer’s office admitted to MIRS News on April 19 that the governor had traveled to Florida for “personal” reasons, a key claim that would complicate her future attempted explanations about the trip.
Whitmer’s office also said that she traveled “at her own expense,” another claim that would be questioned after later versions of the story emerged.
Two days after the initial story broke, Whitmer continued to use her father’s health as the excuse for the trip, claiming that she went to Florida to tend to his needs and “did a lot of cooking, a lot of cleaning.” The governor’s father, Richard Whitmer, is a former chief executive of the Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan insurance company who collected over $1.5 million in compensation in 2002, according to a 2003 MIRS News story. The elder Whitmer owns a property in West Palm Beach, Florida, tax records show.
It is not clear exactly what the nature of her father’s immediate medical emergency was which required the unvaccinated governor to travel to Florida. In fact, not long after the news broke about the Florida trip, the governor’s father was spotted in Lansing, Michigan, shopping and driving alone in his Tesla vehicle.
“It’s maddening,” the governor said of the mounting criticism and allegations of hypocrisy about her Florida trip, adding, “A lot of these same people would accuse me of not having family values if I didn’t show up when a family member needed some help.”
Critics have pointed to Whitmer’s “hypocrisy” on the issue, after she prevented countless families from helping their elders in Michigan nursing homes during her mandated lockdowns.
“It was certainly not spring break,” she said. “I was doing both my job as governor from a distance and being that of a daughter who was helping out a parent who needed a little help.”
That claim sparked constitutional questions because the lieutenant governor acts as the governor when the sitting governor is “absent from the state,” according to the Michigan Constitution.
As questions persisted, Whitmer’s excuses seemed to generate more questions than answers.
More than two weeks later, investigative reporter Charlie LeDuff reported at Deadline Detroit that a plane owned by Air Eagle, LLC — a company owned by three Detroit businessmen — took Whitmer to Florida.
“We wondered why she reached out to us instead of booking a private charter,” one of the owners said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “You can’t tell a governor no. Who needs that kind of trouble?”
LeDuff said the anonymous businessmen “have major dealings in and with the state of Michigan.”
A former lobbyist speculated to Breitbart News that one of the families who own the plane may have agreed to let Whitmer use the plane in exchange for face time with the governor during the 2+ hour trip to Florida.
Whitmer’s office then refused to provide additional details about the governor’s trip, citing “ongoing security concerns.” But Deadline Detroit noted Whitmer’s office did not notify Florida law enforcement that she would be in the state, raising doubts about the sincerity of her office’s concerns about the governor’s security.
A few days later, a television reporter confronted Whitmer about the lack of details concerning this trip. “They say you went to Detroit businessmen to ask for their private plane to go to Florida to see your Dad. I wanted to give you the opportunity to respond to that report. Who paid for that trip when you went down to Florida,” the reporter asked.
“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, uh, reason for doing it and I’ve got nothing to add,” Whitmer responded.
“This issue, governor, is your office has been very secretive about it. So the question is, why so secretive about it?” he continued.
“We don’t discuss my travel,” Whitmer answered about the trip that occurred two months earlier. “I’ve received an incredible number of death threats over the last year and a half. There are a lot of reasons that we don’t discuss how I travel and when I travel and that’s all I’m going to say,” she continued.
At press conference on May 12, Whitmer was asked again about the trip, which she insisted was “a brief trip.”
“It was not a vacation, and it was not a gift,” Whitmer asserted regarding questions about who paid for the private flight, which was estimated to cost as much as $40,000 to charter. Deadline Detroit noted that $40,000 amounts to over 25 percent of the governor’s annual pretaxed salary.
Whitmer said she has a “family member who has been having a lot of health issues” and she “showed up to check in.”
“I showed up when I was needed. I did a lot of cooking, a lot of cleaning,” she added, before claiming she also did her “day job.”
“When you’re the governor of Michigan, you’re always on the clock, but it does not mean that you’re not also a daughter who shows up when a family member needs her,” she said.
Addressing the secrecy around how she got to Florida, Whitmer said, “This flight was not a gift. This flight was not paid for at taxpayer expense.” That was a shift from her original claim that she travel “at her own expense.”
Two days later, Whitmer’s office claimed her 501(c)(4) organization, a so-called “dark money” nonprofit originally created to fund Whitmer’s 2019 transition and inauguration activities, paid for the flight. This claim introduced a new element to the growing scandal: a potential violation of the IRS rules governing 501(c)(4) nonprofits.
Whitmer and her aides had been adamant that her trip was “personal,” but a 501(c)(4) nonprofit cannot pay for “personal” expenses. It can only pay for expenses incurred for organization-related activities.
“501(c)(4) groups are social welfare organizations and are not allowed to pay for personal expenses for officials,” Michigan Rising Action — itself a 501(c)(4) group — said in a news release.
“Either Whitmer’s Florida trip was for a legitimate 501(c)(4) purpose, in which case the c4 could pay for it, or it was personal, in which case a c4 can’t pay for it,” Tori Sachs, Michigan Rising Action’s former executive director, said.
Whitmer’s chief of staff, Joanne Huls, told MIRS News that the flight cost $27,521 and that Whitmer’s 501(c)(4) nonprofit paid Air Eagle, LLC for the use of the plane. It is not clear if paying for the plane was the governor’s intention all along or only after the secret trip became public.
According to Huls, the governor reimbursed the nonprofit $855 — the value that they determined to be the price of her seat on the flight. Whitmer “paid for her seat on the flight with her own personal money,” Huls told MIRS News. However, it is unclear how simply reimbursing the 501(c)(4) for the price of her seat negates the fact that the c4 paid for the entire flight for a “personal” trip for the governor.
Additionally, Huls’ claim that the 501(c)(4) “chartered” the flight introduced yet another element into this growing scandal. The claim touched off questions that Air Eagle, LLC may have violated its agreement with the FAA because the company is not approved to act as a charter service.
Elizabeth Isham Cory, a spokeswoman for the FAA, told the Detroit Free Press that “companies that operate charter flights must have a Part 135 certificate” from the agency. However, Air Eagle, LLC “does not have a Part 135 certificate,” according to Cory.
After Huls created potential legal issues for Air Eagle, LLC, several questions remain, including whether Air Eagle, LLC truly operated as a charter, or if paying for the plane was something Whitmer’s aides decided upon after the fact, which would perhaps explain why the $27,521 expense for the chartered flight and Whitmer’s $855 reimbursement for her seat on that flight was listed in her 501(c)(4)’s May expenditures and revenues, rather than being recorded in March when the flight occurred.
There are also questions concerning who Whitmer may have met with in Florida to justify this flight being paid for by her 501(c)(4). We also do not know whether the governor traveled elsewhere in Florida other than her father’s home, or whether she stayed at her father’s home or at another residence while there. And we do not know what else she may have done in Florida other than helping her father with “a lot of cooking” and “a lot of cleaning.”
We also do not know yet whether the FAA will investigate the chartering of the plane, whether the IRS will investigate Whitmer’s 501(c)(4)’s payment of this “personal” expenditure, and whether Michigan’s Attorney General Dana Nessel (D) will probe the situation for potential corruption.
If, in fact, the plane’s owners allowed the governor to use their plane because this arrangement granted them hours of face time with her to lobby for their interests, we do not know what they might have requested of her and whether she granted it. It is also unknown who—if any—among the plane’s owners traveled with Whitmer to Florida or how many other times she might have used their plane in the past during her term in office.
We also do not know why Whitmer failed to notify Florida law enforcement that she would be in the state, even though she cited concerns about her security as the reason for why she needed to charter a private flight instead of flying commercial.
But most of all, it is still unclear why the unvaccinated governor of Michigan, who warned Michiganders not to travel to Florida, would make an extended weekend trip to Florida — amid rising coronavirus cases in her state — in order to help her wealthy allegedly ailing father cook and clean.
What we do know is that this growing scandal has diminished Whitmer’s standing as a rising star in the Democratic Party. Scandals like this have threatened the futures of elected leaders from both political parties in Michigan. Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (D) was indicted and convicted for corruption involving private funds for travel, and former Gov. Rick Snyder (R) faced criticism for maintaining a 501(c)(4) organization that did not disclose its donors and paid a top aide.
Rebecca Mansour contributed to this story.