The former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services will receive more than $155,000 in exchange for “releasing all claims against” the state, according to a separation agreement provided to the Free Press.
The agreement states the money provided to Robert Gordon constitutes nine months of pay and health care costs. Gordon resigned in January after signing a new employment agreement the previous October that included a $182,000 salary, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Reached Monday, Gordon declined to comment.
On Feb. 2, the Free Press asked the health department for any information about general payments made to Gordon as a result of his departure. A health department attorney stated on Feb. 3, “the department searched for this information and has no such information in the department’s possession.”
The agreement for $155,506.05 is dated Feb. 22. It’s signed by Gordon and Mark Totten, chief legal counsel for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Health department spokesman Bob Wheaton declined to answer specific questions about the agreement.
“This agreement is between the State of Michigan and Robert Gordon and speaks for itself,” Wheaton said.
He referred additional questions to the Office of the Michigan Attorney General. A spokeswoman for the attorney general said they could not answer questions due to attorney-client privilege, indicating they represent the state and not Gordon.
Whitmer press secretary Bobby Leddy said agreements with confidentiality conditions and a “release of claims are fairly standard practice.”
“Per the terms of the agreement, we can’t comment further on a personnel matter,” Leddy said.
Gordon abruptly resigned as head of the state’s health department in late January, announcing his departure on Twitter. In a statement issued shortly thereafter that announced Elizabeth Hertel would be acting department director, Whitmer did not say why he was leaving or thank him for his service.
The director’s decision to step down amid an ongoing health crisis prompted considerable questions, but the governor repeatedly avoided giving direct answers when asked whether she requested he resign. The key to her answer appears in the separation agreement: it states that if asked, the state will say Gordon voluntarily resigned.
The governor would later thank Gordon for his service and wish him well.
Gordon joined the department in January 2019 shortly after Whitmer took office. He worked with the governor and health leaders to implement the state’s immediate and ongoing responses to the pandemic, including measures that at times closed many business. But the measures also helped distribute millions of masks, increased testing capacity and spread awareness about the virus.
Lawmakers and many other critics of the state’s response directed much of their ire toward Gordon.
“I was stunned to hear Robert Gordon signed a taxpayer funded hush money agreement after his departure from the Whitmer administration,” said Rep. Matt Hall, R-Emmett Township, who led a special COVID-19 committee last legislative session.
“It raises questions about what Gov. Whitmer is trying to keep quiet about her administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
After the Michigan Supreme Court effectively invalidated many of Whitmer’s executive orders pertaining to the pandemic, Gordon issued essentially the same mandates under state laws unaddressed by the court. That included an order in November temporarily banning indoor dining and indoor contact sports, both of which remained in place for weeks after the initial suggested end of the ban.
Whitmer, Gordon and other experts would point to data indicating a correlation between improving COVID-19 trends and the implementation of restrictions. Before the November mandates, Whitmer warned additional measures by the state would be needed if case rates, test positivity, hospitalizations, deaths and other indicators did not improve.
Critics argued the orders were unfair, blistering the department for not ever establishing clear data points — like a red line for case rates — indicating when businesses could ease restrictions.
In December, protesters gathered outside Gordon’s Lansing home, calling on him to “open up now.” The same month, a Republican senator called for Gordon’s resignation, citing the state’s response to the pandemic.
“Director Gordon has issued statewide mandates shutting down small businesses without providing them the opportunity to operate safely — a move that has pushed these hardworking small business owners into bankruptcy through no fault of their own,” Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, said in November.
In the days after Gordon’s departure, Whitmer said he led the department during “grueling” and “unimaginable circumstances.”
Since he left, lawmakers from both parties have publicly said they’ve found it easier to communicate with the department under Hertel.
Hertel has a second hearing before the Senate Advice and Consent Committee this week. One lawmaker, Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, has already stated the Senate should consider rejecting her appointment.