LANSING, Mich. — Ex-Michigan health director Robert Gordon, who abruptly resigned in January, says Governor Gretchen Whitmer asked him to step down. “Robert, I’m grateful for your service, but I think it's time to go in a new direction,” Gordon recalls the governor saying on a January video call.
On Thursday, Gordon shared details of his departure for the first time, in front of the House Oversight Committee.
Last week, the committee issued a subpoena to get him to answer questions about what led to his resignation and to provide details regarding the six-figure payout he got from the state.
His departure became the subject of controversy after it was uncovered he signed a $155,000 separation agreement with the state. The agreement included a confidentiality clause, requiring Gordon and Governor Whitmer’s administration to keep quiet about the reasons for his leaving.
Both were tight-lipped to the press in the weeks that followed. “There were no improprieties with Director Gordon’s work, it was simply that he tendered his resignation and I accepted it,” said Governor Whitmer during a March 2 press conference.
The confidentiality clause was eventually waived amid public pressure.
During his testimony Thursday, Gordon made it clear he was not planning on resigning, adding there was a difference of opinion over the January health order that reopened indoor dining in the state.
“That was in a gray area where I don't think that there was a clear right answer. That's why I made one recommendation, we reached another conclusion. I was quite comfortable signing the order,” Gordon said.
Gordon says he was told the separation agreement was standard practice and included payment for him signing the agreement.
GOP lawmakers took exception to that, saying the payout violates the state Constitution since Gordon never indicated he was pursuing legal action.
“There was zero risk of litigation as Director Gordon made it abundantly clear, he was not going to sue,” House Oversight Chair Steve Johnson (R-Wayland) said. “It wasn't Director Gordon who I fault for signing this agreement, who I fault is the state of Michigan for proposing the agreement.”
Democrats shot back on that saying it would still protect the state from being sued in the future if Gordon for some reason changed his mind.
“Respectfully, I think the executive office made an assessment of risk here,” Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids) said.
Gordon says he and Governor Whitmer have an amicable relationship and he’s proud of the work the health department did to save lives in the pandemic. “However hard my job, Governor Whitmer was far more difficult. I had a responsibility to focus on Health and Human Services. She had a responsibility to act based on the full range of considerations touching the well-being of Michiganders.” Gordon told the committee. “She was ultimately responsible for the state's actions, not me. She has governed effectively in the face of enormous headwinds.”
As it turns out, severance deals are not entirely rare in the state. The Legislature has given out more than $600,000 in 30 separation agreements over the past decade, according to the Associated Press.