Democrats: Snyder aides helped cousin avoid cut

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan Democrats on Tuesday accused Gov. Rick Snyder's administration of protecting his cousin's furniture company from a proposed cut in a state contract while questioning a top aide's role because he was being paid by the governor's since-disbanded fund of anonymous donors.

Snyder, a Republican, dismissed the charges as election-year politicking.

Emails unearthed by the state Democratic Party through a records request show that Snyder's cousin George Snyder contacted Richard Baird, the governor's transformation officer, in April 2011 to complain about a Senate-proposed change to a contract under which state agencies buy furniture. DBI Business Interiors, which George Snyder co-owns and has offices in Lansing and Jackson, is paid to install new furniture in state offices — cubicles, desks and the like — for contractor Holland-based Haworth Inc.

DBI also competes for furniture refurbishing work with Grand Rapids-based Kentwood Office Furniture and was concerned the Senate budget bill would have limited spending on new furniture to $1 million a year, a clause the Snyder administration says was inserted to guarantee refurbishing business only for DBI's competitor. Baird quickly replied to reassure George Snyder that then-budget director John Nixon's "people are on this. Sit tight." More than an hour later, Nixon emailed Baird to say "we are on it."

The House did not include the furniture change in its budget bill, and it never became law. In July 2011, when George Snyder emailed Baird about a possible meeting with Nixon to discuss the furniture procurement process, Baird forwarded it to Nixon and mentioned George Snyder's relationship to the governor.

"While parents and seniors were being told by the governor they must sacrifice to balance the state's billion-dollar budget deficit, Rick Snyder's family and political friends were being taken care of," Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson said.

Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said "there is absolutely zero, zilch, nada to this, period. ... George Snyder and DBI have had a well-established and competitively bid contract with the state for a long time, long before Gov. Snyder was ever elected to office."

DBI's relationship with the state dates to the 1990s, said Wurfel, who said Baird and George Snyder met during Rick Snyder's transition from governor-elect to governor.

Nixon, who recently returned to Utah for a new job, called the suggestion of impropriety "ridiculous." He said the Senate provision would have effectively guaranteed Kentwood "sole-source" work, and said he was already aware of concerns about it before he ever heard that George Snyder was worried and that is why he said he was "on it."

"We're not dumb enough to give him preferential treatment," Nixon said, saying DBI received more scrutiny because of the co-owner's ties to the governor. "All he wanted was an equal playing field."

Democrats also questioned why in September 2012 the value of the five-year Haworth contract more than doubled, from $19.2 million to $41.4 million. In May 2013, the value of a separate five-year Haworth contract — for office seating — rose from $4.7 million to $7.2 million, according to an Associated Press review of the state's contracts database.

Until last fall, Baird was paid from Snyder's nonprofit New Energy to Reinvest and Diversify, or NERD, fund. The governor dissolved the fund — used to upgrade a press auditorium and to cover staffers' travel expenses without public dollars — after it came under scrutiny because the money also was used to pay Baird and expenses for Detroit's state-appointed emergency manager.

Democrats said since Baird was paid by the fund, it could have been operating as a "secret lobbying organization on behalf of corporate NERD donors." Snyder has since replaced the fund with a more transparent one.

State budget office spokesman Kurt Weiss said DBI as a subcontractor dealer gets an unspecified cut of the Haworth contracts. The reason the overall contracts' values were raised, he said, is because the Snyder administration is eliminating costly leases by moving employees to buildings the state already owns.

That should save money overall by optimizing space but temporarily raise costs to do work such as clearing entire building floors and "restacking" cubicles, Weiss said.

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Follow David Eggert at http://twitter.com/DavidEggert00

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