U.S. NEWS

Judge Intervenes After Lawmakers Use $65,000 Of COVID-19 Aid On Bonuses

Commissioners in Shiawassee County, Michigan, paid themselves as much as $25,000 in bonuses. One commissioner said she “earned it.”

A Michigan judge has ordered $65,000 in bonuses paid to county commissioners and staff using federal COVID-19 relief aid to be frozen following public outrage over the funds’ use and a county prosecutor calling the payments illegal.

A Genesee County judge on Monday ordered payments made to Shiawassee County commissioners, as high as $25,000 each, to be frozen until further review, The Detroit News reported. The order came in response to a lawsuit accusing the commissioners, all Republicans, of violating the state’s Open Meetings Act by approving the payments in a closed-door session on July 15.

“At no point were the amounts of ‘COVID Hazard Pay’ deliberated, decided, or confirmed at a meeting open to the public,” states a complaint filed last week by a local resident against the board and five of its seven commissioners.

Genesee County Circuit Judge Mark Latchana on Monday ordered the money distributed by Shiawassee County commissioners to be f
Genesee County Circuit Judge Mark Latchana on Monday ordered the money distributed by Shiawassee County commissioners to be frozen pending further review. 

The commissioners had already agreed to voluntarily return the funds they paid themselves prior to the judge’s order this week. Their decision follows public fervor over their use of money that was allocated to benefit front-line workers during the pandemic.

“The Commissioners 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,” the commissioners said in a statement Friday posted on Facebook.

The largest sum of $25,000 was awarded to County Board Chairman Jeremy Root while two commissioners received $10,000 and the other four received $5,000. Smaller payments, made to other county workers, were about $1,000 or $2,000, The Associated Press reported.

Root did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

Shiawassee County Prosecuting Attorney Scott Koerner publicly called out the payments last week as violating Michigan’s constitution after he said he was awarded a bonus himself, prompting him to investigate its legality.

Shiawassee County Commissioner Marlene Webster testifies during a show cause hearing on Monday after commissioners voted on b
Shiawassee County Commissioner Marlene Webster testifies during a show cause hearing on Monday after commissioners voted on bonus payments to themselves. That vote is accused of violating the state's Open Meetings Act.

He specifically pointed to an article in the constitution that prohibits “any political subdivision” of the state from paying extra compensation to public officers or contractors after services have been rendered.

Koerner said he instructed the county’s payroll department to reverse the bonus payment made to him.

“Like any other hard working employee anywhere, I appreciate being considered for recognition of a job well done,” he said in a statement, “but as an elected official I knew what my salary would be when I ran for office.”

Not all county officials felt the same way.

“I think that I earned it,” said Commissioner Cindy Garber, who received a $5,000 payment, according to local station WILX. “I work really hard at this job. I was here in-person all through this crazy year.”

Fellow Commissioner Marlene Webster has suggested her vote on the hazard pay was twisted, however, insisting she never agreed to such exorbitant payments to herself and other commissioners.

“I thought we were voting on giving our county employees about $2,048 a piece, which made sense to me. I’ve seen similar distributions from similar funds to similar people,” she told Fox 47 News

“I understood what I was voting for. They did something different than what I voted on. Not the first time it’s happened,” Webster posted on Facebook Saturday. Webster did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.