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Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan Gov. Whitmer’s ex-health director got $155K separation agreement

Robert Gordon
Robert Gordon, former director of the Michigan health department, testified Thursday that he believes taxpayers got a good deal for his services, even with his $155,000 severance. (Courtesy photo)

April 29: Michigan’s ex-health director: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asked me to quit

March 25: Michigan GOP plan would curb confidential severance deals

LANSING — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration paid former Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon $155,506 as part of a separation agreement that prohibits him from discussing his departure.

Gordon and Mark Totten, chief legal counsel for the Democratic governor, both signed the agreement Feb. 22, exactly one month after the health director abruptly resigned his post in a move he first publicly announced on Twitter. 

“In the interest of protecting deliberations among government officials, the parties agree to maintain confidentiality regarding (Gordon’s) departure from employment unless required by law to release such information,” reads the agreement, first reported Monday by The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press

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While confidentiality clauses and employee separation agreements are common in private industry, health department spokesperson Bob Wheaton said the document “speaks for itself” when asked by Bridge Michigan how often the state includes similar deals for departing employees.

Wheaton said the department is “looking forward to the future” with new director Elizabeth Hertel.

Gordon was earning a $182,000 annual salary before he resigned Jan. 22. That was the same day he signed a COVID-19 order that allowed Michigan restaurants to reopen at 25 percent capacity on Feb. 1. It remains unclear whether that order played a role in his departure. 

State Rep. Matt Hall, a Marshall Republican who grilled Gordon and other state officials last year as chair of a Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic, called the agreement “shocking” and questioned what the administration is “trying to conceal.”

“There was unprecedented secrecy on a lot of the decisions made during this pandemic by executive order behind closed doors,” Hall said. “So when the guy responsible for signing many of these signed an agreement like this, with taxpayer dollars, I think it’s very inappropriate.”

But a spokesperson for Whitmer called the agreement routine. 

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

Gordon is a former Obama administration official who went to work for Whitmer in 2019. His job changed dramatically last year when the coronavirus hit Michigan in March. He became the state’s primary authority for COVID-19 orders in October after the Michigan Supreme Court invalidated an emergency powers law Whitmer had used to issue her own mandates. 

Prior to his departure, Gordon had faced scrutiny for a series of decisions, including:

The former health director has declined multiple interview requests from Bridge Michigan since stepping down. 

Whitmer has also declined to discuss the reasons for Gordon’s departure but has publicly thanked him for what she called “grueling” work to protect public health during the pandemic.

The separation agreement specifies that the state will continue to defend Gordon in new or ongoing lawsuits over COVID-19 restrictions he imposed or enforced as director. 

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