LANSING, Mich. – During her Monday coronavirus briefing, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer did not answer questions about what led to the sudden resignation of former Michigan Dept. of Health and Human Services director Robert Gordon.
“I’ve answered that question I think the only thing that I would, would say is, you know, it’s been a grueling couple of years, and changes in administrations happened,” Whitmer said.
Gordon announced suddenly on social media last Friday that he was leaving his position without giving a reason. Just minutes later the Governor’s office announced Gordon’s senior chief deputy director Elizabeth Hertel would be taking his place, but did not thank Gordon for his time as health chief during the pandemic.
The announcement only referenced Gordon’s resignation in a single sentence. Monday, Hertel thanked Gordon and department staff during her first press conference.
“I would also like to thank Robert Gordon for his service and support of our mission, and his service to our state and its residents,” she said. “I’d also like to acknowledge and thank the MDHHS team, who has worked tirelessly over the past year.”
Recent reporting however, is casting new light on Hertel’s appointment. A new report from The Detroit News raised concerns about her position as a board member on the Michigan Public Health Institute and its ties to the Whitmer administration.
The non-profit is not subject to the same transparency rules as state departments and has been handling some $166 million in contracts to fight COVID-19. The organization was criticized in a recent report by the attorney general’s office with one government official saying it was “often used to avoid oversight.”
The attorney general’s report was looking into a scandal early into the pandemic in which a $200,000 contract that was given to a prominent Democratic party operative to help fight the pandemic. It was ultimately found there was no wrongdoing but the contract was cancelled.
The MPHI has been around for decades and has worked with governors from both sides of the aisle. Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state’s top health official, is also a board member. So is a member of the Local 4/ClickOnDetroit staff. That staff member did not have guidance on this story.
Monday’s briefing was done over video conference and questions from reporters, as with other video briefings, are tightly regulated. It ended before any question about those ties were able to be asked about MPHI.
Hertel’s job description as a senior deputy included a long list of topic areas including policy, legislative and legal affairs, finance and administration and community engagement. Her husband is also Sen. Curtis Hartel (D-East Lansing). Her appointment comes amid tense-at-best relationship between the Governor and the Republican Senate which must confirm several of Whitmer’s nominees. Last month, Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Jim Stamas (R-Milford) threatened to hold up confirming any of Whitmer’s appointees until the “economy is safely reopened.”
In response today Whitmer said, “We have to be mindful. And so, bartering public health restrictions, with the legislature for nominations, for nominees. I’ve not done that for 10 months, I’m not going to start doing that now.”
She added she hoped Stamas’ remarks were “off the cuff” saying, “I am hopeful the Senate won’t just cross their arms and not see these confirmations go through, because we’ve got serious work to do.”