Nonprofit used in Michigan’s COVID fight draws oversight abuse fears

Bizar Male

Lansing — The budget of a nonprofit group that one official says has been used by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to “avoid oversight” has ballooned during the COVID-19 pandemic, spurring concerns about the accountability of millions of dollars in government spending.

Through a “master agreement,” the Okemos-based Michigan Public Health Institute has quietly been able to execute contracts on behalf of the state health department. The group is so closely tied to the department that former state health director Robert Gordon once said “hundreds of employees” contracted through the nonprofit assist the state with work.

The relationship dates back decades under several administrations. During a recent Attorney General’s office investigation into one contract run through the institute, multiple employees said the department uses the nonprofit to get contracts completed more quickly. And the institute, which was formed through state law to help with research, appears to be executing more contracts on behalf of the state than ever before, according to public records.

The group is not subject to the same audit, contract bidding and open records protocols as the department but reported $166 million in funded projects for the current fiscal year, nearly double the total from two years earlier. Meanwhile, the group’s annual revenues have quadrupled over the last decade, according to filings with the Internal Revenue Service.

“It seems like they are shielded from disclosure laws, they are shielded from the civil service pay structure, and they get around competitive bidding,” said former state House Oversight Chairman Matt Hall, R-Marshall. “All of these laws are in place for a reason. It’s for transparency. It’s for protecting the taxpayers from abuse.”

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