Former Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) Director Robert Gordon said Thursday that his abrupt resignation earlier this year came after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said “she wanted to go in a different direction.”
Gordon, a former Obama administration official who Whitmer appointed in 2019, resigned from DHHS on Jan. 22. Weeks later, it was made public that the former director’s separation agreement included a $155,000 severance and a confidentiality clause, which Republicans have repeatedly criticized. After Gordon’s resignation, Whitmer appointed Elizabeth Hertel, who previously served as DHHS senior chief deputy director for administration, to lead the department.
The confidentiality clause was dropped last month, but Gordon didn’t accept invitations from the GOP-led Legislature to speak about his resignation until he was issued a subpoena.
Gordon testified before the House Oversight Committee Thursday, saying that the option to resign came as a surprise to him, but he ultimately made the decision to do so.
According to Gordon, he and Whitmer had a short conversation on the morning of Jan. 22 during which she stated that it “was time to go in a new direction.” A member of Whitmer’s team then asked him if he wanted to resign and he agreed.
“I was given an opportunity to resign and I did,” Gordon said. “One thing that I would say is that when you’re in a role like this, and the governor says, ‘I want to go in a new direction,’ you accept that judgment and you resign.”
Gordon also stated that part of the reason that he and the governor decided to drop the confidentiality agreement was because he “felt that it was a distraction.”
When Gordon resigned in late January, cases were dropping in Michigan for about a month after a second wave of cases in the fall and winter. A few weeks later, in late February, Michigan started to see an alarming surge of cases again. As of Wednesday, Michigan has reported a total of 833,891 COVID-19 cases and 17,467 deaths.
“It was all these suppositions being made that weren’t true. My own view was that deliberations, conversations and advice given should remain confidential, just as a matter of principle, not because of the agreement. And so I was happy to have it removed,” Gordon said.
Some in Lansing have speculated that Gordon quit because he disagreed with the governor’s order to reopen indoor dining effective Feb. 1. The order was announced on the same day that Gordon resigned from his position.
However, Gordon said Thursday that from his perspective, there was a “reasonable difference” between his recommendation and the final order. But in the end, he said he was “quite comfortable” signing the order.
After the controversy, Whitmer in March issued an executive directive prohibiting separation agreements for state employees that include a confidentiality clause and requires review by the attorney general before submission.
Gordon denied that neither the state’s death statistics nor Whitmer’s nursing home policies played a role in his decision to sign the nondisclosure agreement, theories that have been floated by Republicans in the Legislature.
Much of Thursday’s hearing was discussion of the constitutionality of Gordon’s $155,000 settlement agreement.
Committee Chair Steven Johnson (R-Wayland) said the agreement looked like a “sweetheart deal” and argued that under a section in the constitution “neither the Legislature nor any political subdivision of this state shall grant or authorize extra compensation to any public officer, agent or contractor after the service has been rendered or the contract entered into.”
State Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids) said that under this interpretation of the constitution all severance agreements made by the state could be considered for invalidation.
“We have a mechanism for interpretation of law in the Constitution, that’s the courts, and we have mechanisms for producing laws. And it may well be that our body wants to forestall the possibility of severance agreements going forward,” LaGrand said. “Whether or not they’re legitimate, I think is something that could properly be brought to the court, in which case all severance agreements made by any body, any legislative body might be invalidated.”
The Senate and House have doled out their fair share of severance payments over the last few decades, estimated to be about $690,000 in total.
Gordon said he is ready to move forward with his life and is proud of the work he did in Michigan.
“I worked my heart out in that job and the stakes were enormous and the number of lives on the line,” Gordon said of his time leading the state through the pandemic. “I used to read regularly stories about those who had lost their lives. And it had a big impact on me because every life is sacred.”