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Former Michigan health director gets more than $155,000 in confidential payout deal

Robert Gordon wearing face mask
State of Michigan
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Robert Gordon abruptly resigned in January from his role as director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services hours after he signed mandates reopening indoor dining.

Updated Tuesday, March 2 at 5:03 p.m.:

Republicans in the state Legislature say they will hold hearings on severance payments to former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon and a top deputy.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer said Tuesday that she cannot go into specifics on a personnel matter, including payments that will total more than $155,000 to Gordon.“There were not any improprieties with Director Gordon’s work. It’s simply that he tendered his resignation and I accepted it, and I appointed a new director, Elizabeth Hertel, who was hit the ground running. She is doing incredible work, and she needed to put her own team together.”

Gordon had not responded to previous inquiries. He said in an online post that the job was stressful, and that his father died Saturday.

He said both his parents were diagnosed last year with COVID-19.

Updated Tuesday, March 2 at 2:40 p.m.:

Governor Gretchen Whitmer is facing criticism after the disclosure of another severance deal for a former top health official, a day after a $155,000 payout to Michigan's ex-health director Robert Gordon came to light.

The state Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday that deputy director Sarah Esty also reached a separation agreement, which are highly unusual in state government.

Details weren't immediately provided. Gordon abruptly resigned January 22. At that time, Whitmer wouldn't say if she'd sought his exit.

Republican lawmakers are vowing to try to prevent Whitmer from entering into future separation deals that "silence" departing officials.

Original post: Tuesday, March 2 at 8:32 a.m.:

Former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director Robert Gordon will receive more than $155,000 as part of a separation agreement, published reports revealed Monday.

The agreement calls for Gordon 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.<--break->

Gordon resigned in January after signing a new employment agreement the previous October that included a $182,000 salary, according The Detroit News and the Free Press. The agreement for $155,506.05 is dated February 22. It’s signed by Gordon and Mark Totten, chief legal counsel for Governor Gretchen 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.

“Executive separation agreements that include confidentiality terms and release of claims are fairly standard practice,” said Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy in an email statement. “Per the terms of the agreement, we can’t comment further on a personnel matter.”

Republican state Representative Matt Hall of Marshall told The Detroit News he was “stunned” by the separation agreement. The lawmaker, 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.

Dennis Muchmore, the chief of staff for former Republican Governor 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.

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