Robert Gordon, former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services who resigned Jan. 22 without explanation, accepted a $155,506 payout deal from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the Detroit News reported Monday. The deal, signed on Feb. 22 by Gordon and Mark Totten, Whitmer’s lawyer, guaranteed confidentiality between himself and Whitmer’s administration surrounding the circumstances of his departure. 

The four-page agreement was obtained by The Detroit News through an open records request and made public Monday afternoon. The agreement guarantees Gordon the sum, which amounts to nine months salary plus health benefits. It also says the state will attest that he voluntarily resigned if asked by future employers. 

Whitmer and Gordon have previously refused to give a reason for his sudden resignation, a silence solidified by the recent payout.

Gordon, formerly the top health official in Michigan, was swiftly replaced by Elizabeth Hertel very quickly after his departure. Whitmer said Hertel, who previously served as MDHHS senior chief deputy director for administration, was a good fit for the role in a Jan. 22 press release

“(Hertel) has served across multiple administrations from both parties, and knows how to bring people together to get things done,” Whitmer said in the press release. “In her service to the state, she has proven time and again that she will do everything in her power to ensure the health and safety of Michigan families everywhere.”

Gordon served as MDHHS director since he was appointed in January 2019 by Whitmer shortly after she was elected. He previously served in the Obama administration as deputy director of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and acting assistant secretary of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development at the U.S. Department of Education.

Gil Seinfeld, associate dean for academic planning at the University of Michigan Law School, said Gordon is now being considered to fulfil a role as a public service scholar at the school.

On Monday, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald confirmed in an email to The Daily that Gordon will be hired to fill this roll. 

According to The Detroit News, state Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, said he was “stunned” by the resignation agreement and that he did not approve of such a substantial amount of taxpayer money effectively being used to conceal information from Michiganders.

“The people of Michigan deserve to know what was going on here,” Hall said.

In a Tuesday afternoon press conference, when asked by a reporter if the payment was “hush money,” Whitmer said she “really (bristled) at that characterization.”

Two other former Michigan state officials have also resigned in the previous year with similar arrangements. Former Michigan unemployment director Steve Gray received a settlement of $85,872 following his Nov. 5 resignation, which also included a confidentiality pledge, equaling seven months of salary. Gray is now an adjunct professor at the University of Michigan Law School. 

Sarah Esty, former senior deputy director for policy and planning, received a similar but smaller payment after she was placed on leave Jan. 31 through Feb. 26. The Detroit Free Press reported this payment was likely between $11,000 and $13,000 based on documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. 

After the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in October that Whitmer could not issue executive orders related to COVID-19 without the consent of state lawmakers, Gordon’s role became more prominent and MDHHS began issuing more orders for pandemic-related restrictions. Whitmer’s orders, which were often released through MDHHS under Gordon, were extensively criticized by state Republican officials.  

Attorney Jason Shinn of Shinn Legal in Keego Harbor, Mich., told The Detroit News separation deals within the government are not unheard of among high-level officials. The existence of such an agreement is not necessarily a “smoking gun” indicating a fallout with Whitmer, Shinn said.

MDHHS spokesperson Bob Wheaton said the department is “looking forward to the future,” but could not comment any further to The Detroit News.

Dennis Muchmore, former chief of staff for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, claimed to  The Detroit News there were no agreements such as this made between the governor and former staffers during Snyder’s administration. 

“Sometimes, we would give them a couple of weeks of vacation at the end, but most all of the ones I can remember always had time coming to them,” Muchmore said. “I don’t know of any cash involved.”

Daily Staff Reporter Brooke Van Horne can be reached at brookevh@umich.edu. 

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