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

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)

May 4 update: Michigan House votes to curb severances following Gordon exit

LANSING — Former Michigan Health Director Robert Gordon resigned at the request of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, he testified Thursday, telling lawmakers it was her chief legal counsel who first mentioned a confidential severance agreement.

“I think it’s time to go in a new direction,” Whitmer told Gordon on a Jan. 22 video call with her staff, he recalled in testimony before the Michigan House Oversight Committee, whose members grilled him over the $155,000 severance deal

The governor’s request came the same day Gordon signed a COVID-19 order allowing restaurants to reopen at 25 percent capacity, a plan he agreed to after initially pushing for more stringent regulations. 


Whitmer dropped off the call before her Chief Legal Counsel Mark Totten “offered me an opportunity to resign, and I did,” Gordon testified. “I think (Totten) mentioned on the phone call that he would give me the name of an attorney who would tell me more about the possibility of an executive severance agreement.”

Republican lawmakers have blasted the resulting severance agreement as “hush money” because it included a confidentiality clause that Whitmer and Gordon later agreed to waive amid scrutiny. 

Committee Chair Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, said Thursday he thinks the agreement is illegal because a provision in the Michigan Constitution prohibits “extra compensation to any public officer, agent or contractor after the service has been rendered.”

Gordon offered no opinion on that legal question but said the agreement was presented to him by someone in the attorney general’s office as a “standard” deal. Spokespersons for Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel did not immediately respond to requests for comment from Bridge Michigan. 

Johnson’s committee used a subpoena to compel testimony from Gordon, who had initially declined to appear before the GOP-led panel, citing a belief that his public health advice to Whitmer should be confidential. 

Appearing remotely by video feed, Gordon acknowledged he and Whitmer had “a difference of opinion in the days leading up to” his resignation and told lawmakers her suggestion he step down “did not feel great in the moment.” 

As Bridge Michigan first reported, emails from that time show Gordon had been pushing for a more restrictive restaurant dining room re-opening plan than Whitmer, including a hard cap of 20 to 25 diners regardless of restaurant size.

Gordon called that a “reasonable” policy debate without a clear “right answer.” 

He told lawmakers he was “quite comfortable” signing the order that allowed restaurants to reopen dining rooms at 25 percent capacity even though it was not the approach he had initially pushed. 

“There are areas of gray where the science is informative, and it is important to listen and take it into account, but ultimately there’s a lot that goes into the decision,” he said. “ I would say anytime I was disagreeing with Gov. Whitmer, it was in one of those gray area cases.”

Asked about other controversial Whitmer administration orders, Gordon told lawmakers his departure was not related to an initial nursing home policy that Republicans contend may have exposed vulnerable seniors to the virus. 

House Republicans are pushing to limit the executive and legislative branches from brokering separation agreements like the ones signed by Gordon and former Unemployment Insurance Agency Director Steve Gray, who got about $86,000 after stepping down in February. 

Legislation awaiting a vote on the House floor would set new rules for agreements with state officers, barring confidentiality clauses or payouts equal to more than 12 weeks of compensation, unless a more expensive payout is warranted to mitigate the risk of litigation.

Johnson, the committee chair, argued Gordon’s severance was a bad deal for taxpayers. The separation agreement prohibited Gordon from suing the state after his departure, but Gordon testified he had no intention of doing so. 

“What did the taxpayers get? They lost $155,000.”

Gordon declined to opine on the merits of the separation agreement itself — which paid him about nine months of his $182,000 annual salary — but told lawmakers he believes taxpayers got a “good deal” from his work.

“I was part of a team that helped save thousands of lives,” Gordon said, noting he moved his family from Washington, D.C., to Michigan for the job and worked “around the clock” for two years. 

“For me, the opportunity to serve as the director of the Department of Health and Human Services was the privilege of a lifetime,” he added. “Public service has always been the most important thing in my life.”

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