After Republican officials in Michigan voted to award themselves bonuses totaling $65,000 from federal COVID relief funds set aside for frontline workers, they have vowed to return the money — but only after public outcry and the filing of a lawsuit against them.
Earlier this month, Republican commissioners in Shiawassee county voted 6-0 to give themselves a significant portion of the $557,000 allotted to 250 county employees as hazard pay for working through the pandemic. MLive reports that they are the only county to have voted to do so.
While county employees received $1,000 to $2,000 for their work, the commissioners voted to give themselves much more. Commission chairman Jeremy Root received $25,000 last week. Two commissioners received $10,000, while others got $5,000 each.
The commissioners, all Republicans, voted to award higher sums to other top Republican officials as well — like Sheriff Brian BeGole, who received $25,000.
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Michigan) criticized the commissioners’ vote. A spokesperson for Kildee told ABC12 that the commissioners decided “to benefit themselves instead of the community.”
“American Rescue Plan dollars were intended to help frontline workers and families impacted by the pandemic, not elected officials,” Kildee said. While health department officials received $2,500 and other lower-level staff received only $1,000, the commissioners awarded themselves 10 times those amounts.
One Michigan resident has sued the officials, accusing them of violating the law by holding a “secret private meeting” in which they voted on the amounts that they were going to pocket “outside the view of the public.” Meanwhile, other county employees only received an average of $2,148 for their work, the lawsuit says.
The county prosecutor, Scott Koerner, also pushed back on the officials’ vote, saying that he believed the bonuses were illegal. The commissioners had voted to give Koerner $12,500.
It’s likely that the bonuses were, indeed, given out in violation of guidelines for the funds from the federal government. A Justice Department spokesperson told MLive that “[American Rescue Plan] dollars used for hazard pay should prioritize low-income workers who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and essential workers who have faced the greatest risk of exposure,” MLive wrote.
The GOP commissioners pushed back on the criticism. “Since these payments were made, confusion about the nature of these funds has run rampant,” they said in a statement. They wrote that they “deeply regret that this gesture has been misinterpreted, and have unanimously decided to voluntarily return the funds to the county, pending additional guidance from the state of Michigan.”
One of the commissioners, Marlene Webster, pushed back on the statement that the public “misinterpreted” the bonuses. Webster wrote in a Facebook post — where she also insisted that she didn’t realize she was voting for a bonus for herself — that the statement issued by the board of commissioners is “an insult to the citizens of Shiawassee county.”