Michigan Legislature had more than $600K in confidential severance deals in past decade

Capitol building in Lansing, Michigan. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

LANSING, Mich. – The Michigan Legislature, where majority Republicans have blasted Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer over severance payments to top officials, on Tuesday disclosed nearly $700,000 worth of separation agreements or legal settlements over the past decade.

The bulk of the payouts, $632,000, involved 30 separation deals in the Senate since 2010, including 20 in the past five years. Individual payments were not released. Three House agreements in 2018 and 2015, totaling nearly $60,000, settled legal disputes with terminated employees since 2013.

Neither chamber disclosed details of the deals to media outlets and a liberal advocacy group, citing their confidential nature. The governor's administration last week did make public $155,000 and $85,000 agreements with former Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon and ex-Unemployment Insurance Agency Director Steve Gray under public-records requests. The Legislature is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act but releases financial records under legislative rules and the state constitution.

Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan, which requested the legislative information and plans a ballot initiative to open both lawmakers and the governor to FOIA requests, said the “Legislature needs to get their house in order before they can claim to take any sort of moral high ground on this issue.”

It was unclear if any former Senate employee got a six-figure payout like Gordon did. When asked last week about his abrupt Jan. 22 departure, which came the same day he signed an order allowing restaurants to reopen for indoor dining, the governor said the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll but said she could not elaborate under the terms of Gordon's agreement.

It was signed by her chief lawyer Mark Totten on behalf of the state. Such deals are used often for leaders in the public sectors, Whitmer said, a claim that has been disputed by officials in past administrations.

A message seeking additional comment on the 30 Senate agreements was left with Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey of Clarklake, who became leader in 2019. House Speaker Jason Wentworth of Farwell, who took charge in January, issued a statement saying “we have nothing to hide in House finances. The House agreed to a few small settlements to avoid litigation and save taxpayer dollars, and that’s it. No golden parachutes, no hush money and no hiding.”

Whitmer has bristled at suggestions that the severance payments were “hush money.”

Her chief operating officer, Tricia Foster, reiterated Tuesday that Cabinet members should expect guidance in coming weeks related to handling future separation deals with state employees. She also wrote that the governor's office, which is exempt from public-records requests unlike state departments, “has had $0 in separation agreements.”

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