Michigan House legislators are pushing a package of bills to increase transparency in the state’s executive branch after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a series of separation agreements following the controversial and unexplained departure of several high-ranking state officials, including Robert Gordon, former director of Michigan Health and Human Services.
The ten bills — H.B. 4383 through H.B. 4392 — would end the governor’s office exemption from Freedom of Information Act requests and create the Legislative Open Records Act.
Gordon and Steve Gray, former Michigan Unemployment Agency director, received $155,506 and $86,000 in payouts respectively from the state after their resignations in January 2021 and November 2020. Both signed confidentiality agreements, making the circumstances surrounding their departure unclear.
State lawmakers confirmed the Republican-led legislature has paid out more than $600,000 in the past decade in similar confidential agreements. State Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, defended the legislature’s use of separation agreements for “low-level bureaucrats,” while saying agreements with department directors are inappropriate because of their higher-ranking positions.
On March 1, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald confirmed to The Michigan Daily that Gordon will be hired as a public service scholar at the University of Michigan. Gray and Sarah Esty, who also left her role in the state government under similar circumstances, are both professors at the Law School.
Republican lawmakers in the state legislature characterized the separation agreements and payouts as “hush money,” particularly given Gordon and Gray’s central roles in the state’s COVID-19 pandemic response.
State Rep. Annette Glenn, R-Midland, said she hopes House legislators will pass legislation preventing similar agreements in a March 4 press release.
“The people of Michigan have every right to full disclosure and transparency from their state government,” Glenn said. “When the governor makes deals to buy the silence of her departing department heads, it raises a lot of troubling questions – particularly in departments like DHHS and UIA, particularly in a time like the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Whitmer defended the agreements in a March 2 press conference, characterizing them as a common practice. Whitmer said she “bristles” at the characterization of the agreements as “hush money.”
“Separation agreements are used often in the public and private sector when someone in a leadership position leaves an organization,” Whitmer said. “Due to the nature of the agreement (with Gordon), there’s not a lot more I can say on the subject. However, I do want to say this: There were not any improprieties with Director Gordon’s work. It’s simply that he tendered his resignation and I accepted it.”
In a letter responding to Johnson’s request to have Gordon appear before the Michigan House Oversight Committee, Gordon said he and Whitmer agreed to wave the initially-signed confidentiality clause from his separation agreement for the sake of greater transparency.
Public Policy professor John Chamberlin, who studies ethics and public policy, said in an interview with The Daily he believes Republicans’ depiction of the payouts as hush money has little evidence and is largely based on partisan conflict.
“In this case, I suspect it’s not hush money,” Chamberlin said. “I don’t know what it is, but I think Gordon had been a strong government employee and maybe (he and Whitmer) had a policy disagreement and he decided to leave, or it was suggested he leave. I’m still not quite sure why money was attached to that … But I think that this suspicion about ‘if you can’t tell us, it must be hush money’ is mostly political infighting.”
Chamberlin added he generally dislikes the use of separation agreements, though they can be useful in situations where people want to protect their privacy.
“I’m not a great fan of separation agreements in government,” Chamberlin said. “I can imagine there would be circumstances when that would be appropriate. But on the whole, they’re not even great in the private sector where they happen all the time.”
LSA junior Chris Sandler — a member of Kappa Alpha Pi pre-law fraternity — said he sees no problem with separation agreements in government, as they’re widely used in other sectors. He also said he is not concerned about the confidentiality clauses because the agreements Whitmer signed allow legislators and law enforcement officials to obtain further details about the circumstances of Gordon and Gray’s departures, if necessary.
“I don’t see an issue with (separation agreements), the reason being because separation agreements are prevalent in all facets of professional life,” Sandler said. “As an intern, I was given a separation agreement once my time ended. There was language that was very similar to the language that was utilized in the unemployment director’s separation agreement.”
Whitmer advocated for greater transparency during her campaign, but justified her FOIA exemption by saying she thinks it is important the legislature is held to the same standard as the executive branch, as the Michigan legislature is also exempt from FOIA requests. Michigan and Massachusetts are the only states that wholly exempt their governor’s office from FOIA requests.
Whitmer clarified in a March 12 executive directive, though the circumstances under which the governor’s office can make separation agreements, including payouts, may initially concern the public, shedid not prohibit the practice of signing separation agreements with former government employees.
“The people of Michigan should have confidence in the activities of state government, including the expenditure of public funds on separation agreements,” Whitmer said.
Chamberlin said increased transparency in the Michigan executive office and legislature could result from FOIA and LORA laws being passed, which would in turn lead to fewer separation agreements.
“I think both the governor and the legislature need to be more transparent,” Chamberlin said. “Neither is subject to FOIA requests. So I think the legislature getting on their high horse about the governor is a little two-faced. They could fix their own house first. Now there is legislation moving through that would probably do that. We’ll see if they make it.”
The University’s chapter of College Republicans declined to comment.Daily Staff Reporter Julia Rubin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org