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Michigan GOP plan would curb confidential severance deals

Jason Wentworth
Michigan’s Republican House Speaker Jason Wentworth called for the acting chief of the state’s unemployment agency to step down Thursday, prompting a rebuke from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office. (Bridge file photo)

LANSING — Michigan House Republicans are proposing to limit on confidential separation agreements with state officials and voluntarily adopting new restrictions of their own. 

The push follows controversial agreements in Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration, including a $155,506 deal with former Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon and a $85,872 deal with former Unemployment Insurance Agency Director Steve Gray. 

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Republicans have decried those payouts, which included confidentiality clauses, as "hush money" to silence officials who helped develop and implement COVID-19 pandemic policies. 

But critics have accused the Legislature of hypocrisy, because the House and Senate have refused to disclose any details of the $690,000 in separation settlements reached with former employees since 2010. 

New legislation sponsored by Rep. John Roth, R-Traverse City, would prohibit severances for state officials "except to settle legal claims," which would also be capped at 12 weeks of pay. And the plan would also ban non disclosure agreements with appointed or elected officials, including lawmakers.

Separately, House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, on Thursday announced a new internal policy that will prohibit severance deals with more than six weeks of pay, “unless it's part of a legal settlement that would save taxpayers money in the long run,” his office said. 

The policy requires the House to publish an annual summary of severance agreements with more than six weeks of pay, including dates and amounts. It also prohibits deals that prevent former employees from discussing them.

Whitmer this month adopted a new separation agreement policy of her own, but Wentworth said that directive "did not go nearly far enough" and "the potential for abuse still exists.”

"No government office should be able to rely on secret deals with employees using taxpayer dollars — it’s simply not right, and we’re going to make sure it never happens in the House."

The House Oversight Committee began debate Thursday on two other bills that would prohibit confidential separation agreements with elected or appointed officials. Democratic Rep. Julie Brixie of Meridian Township argued any changes to state statute should also apply to deals with legislative staffers. 

"By and large, most of the reasons that low-level staffers leave legislative offices is because of behavior of the members themselves," Brixie said. "We're elected, and we should be held to higher standard than our appointees."

Whitmer and Gordon last week agreed to waive the confidentiality clause in his separation deal, but the former state health director has still not discussed details of his departure and declined an invitation to testify before the House Oversight Committee. 

In a letter he submitted last week "in lieu" of testimony, Gordon acknowledged there were "robust" pandemic policy debates within the administration prior to his departure, which came the same day Whitmer announced an order allowing restaurant dining rooms to reopen at 25 percent capacity. 

Rep. Steve Johnson, who chairs the oversight committee, last week introduced a resolution seeking subpoena power for his panel. On Thursday, he said he plans an authorization vote next week if Gordon does not agree to testify before then.

"We are giving him one last opportunity," said Johnson, R-Wayand.

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