Feds won’t investigate Whitmer’s nursing home policy, Craig teases run for governor: The week in Michigan politics
LANSING, MI — This week in Michigan politics brought moments of vindication for both Democrats and Republicans.
Despite calls for an investigation from Republicans, there won’t be a federal probe into Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 policies related to nursing homes. Whitmer has said the calls for a probe were fueled by “partisan games.”
The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday declined to open an investigation under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.
This week also marked the culmination of the Unlock Michigan campaign, as the Michigan House on Thursday approved the conservative group’s initiative to repeal the Emergency Powers of Governor Act of 1945, which Whitmer used to extend a state of emergency during the COVID-19 pandemic until the Michigan Supreme Court determined it was unconstitutional in October 2020.
Keep reading for this week’s top politics headlines from around the state:
James Craig teases bid for Governor
Retired Detroit Police Chief James Craig rolled out what looked like the beginnings of a political campaign this week: an eye-catching logo, a video introducing himself and an official campaign finance filing with the state. But his team calls all of it “exploratory.”
So what’s that?
Technically, under state campaign finance law, there’s no such thing as an exploratory committee.
At the federal level, the Federal Elections Commission allows for candidates to expend money “testing the waters,” — meaning they can legally do things like conduct polling or travel around the state to gauge whether they have enough support to mount a run for office.
But in Michigan, the campaign finance act doesn’t provide for that. Instead, it defines a candidate as someone who “receives a contribution, makes an expenditure, or gives consent for another person to receive a contribution or make an expenditure with a view to bringing about the individual’s nomination or election to an elective office…” and requires them to form a candidate committee once they do so.
Craig, a Republican, has formed a committee called the “Chief James Craig for Governor Exploratory Committee.”
Read more: So is James Craig running for governor?
Election attorney Steve Liedel, of the law firm Dykema, said there was some precedent for Michigan candidates or their political consultants trying to frame their initial steps as exploratory.
But, “From a legal perspective he is a candidate, and the committee can’t under Michigan law be anything other than a candidate committee,” Liedel said.
Craig himself has been circumspect on the point. In what Fox News’ Tucker Carson billed as a “major announcement,” Craig went on his show Wednesday and announced the formation of his exploratory committee. But at one point he went further, saying “I’m running” and outlining some reasons why, including the plight of small businesses.
But in a Thursday morning interview with WJR’s Paul W. Smith, Craig stayed away from directly saying whether he was running and described launching an exploratory committee as a “natural part of the process.”
Michigan Campaign Finance Network Executive Director Simon D. Schuster said calling a Michigan campaign finance committee an exploratory committee is “not common at all, to my knowledge,” and a campaign finance committee is likely forming because Craig is doing an activity that requires him to form one, like receiving money or an exchange of material goods.
“Filing the ‘Chief James Craig Exploratory Committee’ is the first step in running for Governor,” Craig said in a statement in response to a question from MLive on if he was running.
In a press release Wednesday, the committee noted that a formal announcement would likely occur after Labor Day, and “At that time the Chief James Craig for Governor Exploratory Committee will likely transition to Chief James Craig for Governor.”
Feds won’t investigate Whitmer’s nursing home policy
The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday declined to open an investigation into Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s nursing home policy under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.
“We have reviewed the information you provided along with additional information available to the Department. Based on that review, we have decided not to open a CRIPA investigation of any public nursing facility within Michigan at this time,” wrote Steven H. Rosenbaum, chief of litigation for the USDOJ’s Special Litigation Section.
The U.S. Department of Justice had requested nursing home data from Michigan and other states with Democratic governors — New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — in August of 2020.
At the time, Whitmer was critical of the request, saying the then-President Donald Trump administration was playing “partisan games.”
Whitmer spokesperson Bobby Leddy reacted to the news that an investigation would not take place in a statement Tuesday.
“Throughout the pandemic, our administration took swift action, following the best data and science from the CDC, to slow the spread of COVID-19 and protect Michiganders, including vulnerable residents in long-term-care facilities. I want to be clear: at no point were nursing homes ever forced to take COVID-positive patients,” Leddy said.
“… With both the United States Department of Justice and Michigan Attorney General rejecting these baseless attacks, it’s time to end the political games and work together to get things done for Michiganders,” Leddy said.
Republicans have long been critical of Whitmer’s nursing home policy, which early on in the pandemic required nursing homes to accept COVID-positive patients — something that was never actually implemented, according to an industry spokesperson.
Republicans in the legislature have continued to draw attention to the issue, compare Whitmer’s actions to those of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, ask for additional data, call for investigations, and investigate the issue themselves.
Recently, the Auditor General agreed to study the issue at the request of a Republican lawmaker. But law enforcement authorities including Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and now the U.S. Department of Justice have declined to take up the issue.
The U.S. Department of Justice, in a letter to Whitmer administration Chief Legal Counsel Mark Totten, did leave open the possibility that it could open an investigation under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act at a later date.
An MLive investigation earlier this year found data from both Michigan and the federal government didn’t seem to indicate there was a ‘smoking gun’ on nursing home deaths.
At that time, Michigan was below the national death rate both in nursing home deaths and deaths among older people overall.
As of July 9, 4,216 people had died of COVID-19 in skilled nursing facilities, with 938 deaths in senior homes and 526 deaths of residents living in adult foster facilities, according to state data.
Whitmer tops fundraising amount from 2018
It’s an off-year for Michigan’s gubernatorial election but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s next campaign finance filing will show that she’s raised $8.5 million so far this year, according to her campaign.
So far this cycle the report will show her having raised a total of $14 million, according to the campaign. That means she’ll have outraised previous governors, but also herself — in the 2018 cycle, where she fought through a primary and a general election and won both, she raised just over $13 million.
“Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has led Michigan through the greatest public health crisis in a century and this report is a testament to the enormous trust people have in her ability to put Michigan first and continue leading our state forward, creating jobs and getting our economy moving again,” said Mark Fisk, spokesperson for the Whitmer for Governor Campaign.
The full report is not yet available but is due to the Secretary of State on Monday. It will show her having $10 million cash on hand, according to her campaign.
Legislature repeals emergency powers law
The law used by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to issue emergency orders without legislative approval during the pandemic is getting repealed.
On Wednesday, the Michigan House approved Unlock Michigan’s initiative to repeal the Emergency Powers of Governor Act of 1945, from which Whitmer drew authority to unilaterally extend a state of emergency during the COVID-19 pandemic until the Michigan Supreme Court determined it was unconstitutional in October 2020.
The Unlock Michigan initiative does not impact another, more recent state of emergency law on the books that allows the governor to declare a state of emergency for 28 days, after which point the governor must seek legislative approval for a state of emergency to continue.
Republican representatives followed the lead of the Michigan Senate, voting 60-48 to approve the petition. Four Democrats joined the Republican caucus in supporting the measure: Reps. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette, Tim Sneller, D-Burton, and Karen Whitsett, D-Detroit.
Under Michigan law, citizen-led ballot initiatives approved by both chambers of the Michigan Legislature do not need the governor’s approval to become law. But the Michigan Senate did not approve the measure to take immediate effect, meaning the law won’t officially come off the books until 2022.
“Our Unlock Michigan citizen army collected over 540,000 signatures in just 80 days,” Unlock Michigan spokesperson Fred Wszolek said. “Now, 292 days later, we’ll complete our mission with a final vote in the Legislature to end Governor Whitmer’s rule by decree.”
When the Legislature declined to extend the coronavirus state of emergency past April 30, Whitmer argued the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act gave her authority to continue the state of emergency and used broad executive powers to issue orders restricting in-person business and activity. She continued to do so until the Michigan Supreme Court determined she didn’t have that authority last fall.
Opponents of the Unlock Michigan initiative in the Legislature defended the actions Whitmer took during the pandemic. Rep. Julie Rogers, D-Kalamazoo, said Whitmer’s use of the 1945 law wasn’t the action of a “rogue governor following her own rules” — she was following a statute that was only ruled unconstitutional by the Michigan Supreme Court months later.
Truthful unemployment claimants won’t have to repay benefits despite Michigan error
Nearly 650,000 Michiganders received letters saying they may not have qualified for unemployment benefits they received – but the state is now saying most of them won’t have to repay the money.
Throughout the pandemic, Michigan listed four options people could choose to receive federal unemployment that weren’t approved by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The feds required the state to send letters to anyone who qualified using those reasons, asking them to fill out paperwork to see if they qualified for benefits under a different reason. Other qualifying options are similar to the four options in question, but phrased differently.
Anybody who filled out their paperwork truthfully will get a waiver and won’t have to pay back the money, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said this week in a statement.
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