Michigan Gov. Whitmer, ex-health director agree to waive confidentiality

FILE- In a Dec. 18, 2020 file photo provided by the Michigan Office of the Governor, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Robert Gordon addresses the state in Lansing, Mich. On Friday, Jan. 22, 2021 Gordon resigned his position. He made the announcement without explanation Friday, just hours after signing a revised order to allow restaurants to resume indoor dining on Feb. 1. (Michigan Office of the Governor via AP, File) (Uncredited)

LANSING, Mich. – Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office said Thursday that the state and her former health director amended his $155,000 severance deal to remove a confidentiality clause that had drawn criticism.

Robert Gordon abruptly resigned in January, the day he issued a coronavirus order allowing restaurants to reopen for indoor dining after a monthslong closure. A month later, he signed the separation agreement in which the sides agreed — “in the interest of protecting deliberations among government officials” — to maintain confidentiality regarding his departure. He will not sue the state.

The parties agreed Wednesday to waive the confidentiality provision “in the interest of greater transparency,” Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said.

In a Thursday letter to the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Gordon elaborated a bit on his exit instead of agreeing to testify. He said there had been “robust conversations about policy issues where reasonable people could disagree and did.” He such said debate was “healthy” and resulted in “strong outcomes," saying Michigan's per-capita COVID-19 death rate — which was high early in the pandemic — ranks 21st.

Whitmer, he wrote, “deserves a health director with whom she is comfortable. I tendered my resignation, and she accepted it.”

The Democratic governor has not said if she sought Gordon's exit. But his severance pact suggested he was forced out. The $155,506 payout covers nine months of salary and his payments to continue health coverage.

Rep. Steven Johnson, who chairs the panel, said he will ask the full House for the power to administer oaths, issue subpoenas and examine records related to the Whitmer administration's employee separations and severance agreements.

Whitmer set policies last week regarding severance deals, after GOP lawmakers criticized her over the Gordon deal and one for the former head of the Unemployment Insurance Agency. Her directive says Michigan’s executive branch cannot agree to deny the existence of an agreement or withhold its details, but it allows non-disclosure or confidentiality clauses related to an employment decision or dispute.

State Republican Party spokesman Ted Goodman said it is pleased Gordon's secrecy provision was waived but added: “Michiganders deserve to know why Mr. Gordon left, and why a confidentiality agreement was required in the first place."

The GOP-led Legislature, where there have been 30 separation deals totaling $632,000 and at least three legal settlements totaling nearly $60,000 over the past decade, has not released details on which ex-employees signed them and why.

Lonnie Scott, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan, said “the lack of transparency around their own separation agreements shows that the Legislature is far more interested in one-way glass than they are in true transparency.”

The House on Thursday unanimously approved bills that would open the governor and lawmakers to public-records requests, but Scott said the legislation could enable legislative severance deals to be shielded if they were designated as caucus records.


Follow David Eggert at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00