Whitmer faces criticism over severance deals for officials

Michigan

LANSING, Mich. (AP/WOOD) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is facing criticism after the disclosure of severance deals for former top health officials.

It was revealed Monday that former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director Robert Gordon will receive more than $155,000 as part of a separation agreement. On Tuesday, it came to light that deputy director Sarah Esty also reached a separation agreement, which are highly unusual in state government.

Gordon abruptly resigned Jan. 22. At that time, Whitmer wouldn’t say if she’d sought his exit. 

After the Michigan Supreme Court effectively invalidated many of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gordon issued essentially the same mandates under state laws unaddressed by the court, prompting protests outside his home.

Gordon’s agreement calls for him to drop all claims against the state. It also promises legal assistance in matters relating to actions he took while director.

Details reached in Esty’s deal weren’t immediately provided. 

When asked about the the deals during a coronavirus briefing Tuesday afternoon, Whitmer said she could not provide many details due to the agreements. She did say that he “simply sent in his resignation” and that she accepted it.

“Robert and his team were an incredibly important part of our response and I appreciated his service to our state,” Whitmer said during the briefing.

Whitmer went on to say that separation agreements happen often when a top official leaves an organization.

Republican lawmakers are vowing to try to prevent Whitmer from entering into future separation deals that “silence” departing officials. The Michigan Republican Party held a press conference Tuesday afternoon demanding answers, calling the payments “hush money.”

“We want her to explain it. Why are you giving Robert Gordon these payments?” one Republican official said.

GOP officials say they will investigate and are working to hold an Oversight Committe hearing and will ask Whitmer to testify to bring transparency to the situation.

Gordon on Tuesday released a statement saying he’s “grateful to have served” as the health department’s director. In the statement, he thanked Whitmer, highlighted accomplishments during his time at the health department and shared how difficult the pandemic has been for millions of family.

It was an honor to be chosen as the director of the Department of Health and Human Services by Governor Whitmer. I appreciated her kind words today.

Under her leadership, and alongside thousands of outstanding public employees, we accomplished a lot. DHHS’s carefully crafted November 2020 epidemic order became a national model and prevented thousands of deaths. More lives were saved by our efforts to combat disparities with outreach and testing focused on African-American communities; through first-in-the-nation mandatory testing for agricultural workers; and through the distribution of millions of free masks to underserved populations, ahead of most states. Michigan was the first state to deliver Pandemic EBT benefits to more than 500,000 children; we scaled SNAP during the pandemic more quickly than most states; and our policy changes are increasing benefits renewals, saving residents time, and delivering help faster. With other state partners, we worked against Medicaid work requirements, and we enabled more than 1 million Michiganders to get health insurance. We effectively launched a turnaround of the state’s child welfare system, improving outcomes for thousands of vulnerable youth. We expanded access to medication assisted treatment, including in prisons, and to safe syringe programs for those suffering from substance use disorders. We offered an innovative array of new mental health tools during COVID, and advanced an important public dialogue about improving mental health services over the long term.

I’ve served in government a long time, and I believe that elected chief executives need to make final decisions about policy with confidential advice. They also need to be comfortable with their agency heads. Since the pandemic began, many leadership changes have happened in other states. It’s no surprise they would happen in Michigan.

This has been a grueling time for millions of families, including mine. Late last year, both my parents contracted COVID. My father, Alan Gordon, died on Saturday. He was a public employee who worked on behalf of individuals leaving prison or just finding a home. He taught me that what matters most in life is our service to others. Before COVID struck, nothing made me happier than to visit our field offices, from Detroit to Marquette, to meet with public employees helping those in need. I am grateful to have served.

Robert Gordon

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