Theis Calls Former Director's Separation Agreement "Unacceptable"
March 2, 2021
By Jon King / firstname.lastname@example.org
A local lawmaker says a separation agreement involving the former head of the state health department is “unacceptable,” while the disclosure of another severance deal for a former top health official is creating further criticism of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
A day after Whitmer's administration acknowledged that Robert Gordon, the former director of the Michigan Department of Public Health and Human Services, and a key leader in the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, was paid $155,000 following his sudden resignation, state health department officials told The Detroit News that deputy director Sarah Esty also reached a separation agreement. Details were not immediately provided.
Gordon's agreement calls for him to drop all claims against the state, though it was not immediately clear what claims may have been included. It also promises legal assistance in matters relating to actions he took while director. Gordon resigned in January after signing a new employment agreement the previous October that included a salary of $182,000.
The agreement for $155,506.05 is dated Feb. 22. It’s signed by Gordon and Mark Totten, chief legal counsel for Gov. Whitmer. It was not revealed why he was leaving at the time of his resignation. However, he resigned shortly after the Michigan Supreme Court effectively invalidated many of Whitmer’s executive orders pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Gordon issued essentially the same mandates under state laws unaddressed by the court.
The director’s decision to step down during the pandemic prompted questions, but the governor repeatedly avoided giving direct answers when asked whether she requested he resign. However, the separation agreement says if asked, the state will say Gordon voluntarily resigned.
Gordon on Monday declined to comment on the agreement.
However, State Senator Lana Theis posted on social media Monday night that the “people of Michigan deserve answers” as “Gordon advised Governor Whitmer on her nursing home policies.” Theis last week signed on to a letter to both Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's Office and the U.S. Attorney General, calling for an investigation about alleged discrepancies in how the number of nursing home cases and deaths were reported. Theis also urged her Senate colleagues to reject the confirmation of Gordon's successor, Elizabeth Hertel.
Another lawmaker who says answers are needed is Republican state Rep. Matt Hall of Marshall, who told The Detroit News he was “stunned” by the separation agreement. Marshall, who once chaired the House Oversight Committee, said he had grave concerns about the use of government funds to prevent taxpayers from knowing what was behind Gordon’s departure.
“The people of Michigan deserve to know what was going on here,” Hall said.
In 2014, Whitmer — then the Senate minority leader — called for an independent review after former state Treasurer Andy Dillon made the same salary for three months after resigning. He worked as an adviser to his successor during that period.
But Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said in an emailed statement that, “Executive separation agreements that include confidentiality terms and release of claims are fairly standard practice. Per the terms of the agreement, we can’t comment further on a personnel matter.”
Dennis Muchmore, the chief of staff for former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, said he doesn’t recall similar separation agreements being signed during the Snyder administration.
“Sometimes, we would give them a couple of weeks of vacation at the end, but most all of the ones I can remember always had time coming to them,” Muchmore said of departing officials. “I don’t know of any cash involved.”
Attorney Jason Shinn, who has practiced employment law for 20 years, said separation deals within the government are not unheard of among high-level officials. The fact that Gordon signed one isn’t necessarily in itself a “smoking gun” that a major falling-out had occurred with Whitmer, he said.
“There are benefits to both parties to having it in place,” said Shinn, who highlighted the protection against future legal claims.
Gordon has been recruited to serve as a public service scholar at the University of Michigan Law School, associate dean Gil Seinfeld told The Detroit News.
Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers vowed to try to prevent Whitmer from entering into future taxpayer-funded separation deals that “silence” departing officials. Rep. Annette Glenn, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said she will add a provision to the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy budget bill and encourage other subcommittee chairs to do the same for all other department budgets.
“Gov. Whitmer should not be allowed to use state tax dollars to pay ‘hush money’ to departing state regulators, and now that it’s been revealed, she should reverse her attempt to force taxpayers to foot the bill for buying Mr. Gordon’s silence,” Glenn said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.