LANSING, Mich. — Governor Gretchen Whitmer is facing a rash of criticism after a confidential separation agreement came to light, showing former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon received a $155,000 payout after abruptly resigning from his post in January.
The state GOP and Republican lawmakers are now calling on Attorney General Dana Nessel to open an investigation into that agreement and others. They say the deal raises more questions about the governor’s response to the pandemic and the transparency of her office.
“We need to look at these payments and assess the appropriateness of them, and one of the main things we need to do is get answers from Gretchen Whitmer,” Rep. Matt Hall (R-Marshall) said.
Republican lawmakers huddled near the steps of Michigan’s Capitol Tuesday, in front of signs reading “Secret Deal” and “What else is Whitmer hiding?”
“Our governor has bought the silence of former Director Gordon with $155,000 in taxpayer money. That’s a public official being bought off with taxpayer dollars. What I want to know is what are they hiding?” says Rep. Steve Johnson (R-Wayland).
Johnson, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, says they will hold hearings to find out how this payout and agreement came about.
They are also considering issuing subpoenas to get people, including Gordon, to testify.
“We would like for them to testify in our committee. Up to this point, DHHS has refused to testify regarding the nursing home policies,” Johnson said.
“We've had a lot of questions on the data that they claim to have or they won't share with us; we've repeatedly asked for that. And they refuse to share that with us. Now when we see that in light of this confidentiality agreement, it does raise the question: Does Director Gordon know stuff about the nursing home deaths, that they don't want to share with us?” questioned Johnson.
“Those are all questions that we have, and we would like for the department to answer,” he added.
At her own briefing Tuesday, Governor Whitmer defended the use of separation agreements and shot back on claims that the payments were “hush money.”
“I really bristle at the that characterization. It is the nature of a separation agreement when someone in a leadership position leaves is that you know there are terms to it, and you can't share every term to it, and that's simply what it is,” Whitmer said.
"Separation agreements to your question are used often in the public and private sector. When someone in a leadership position leaves an organization, and due to the nature of the agreement, there's not a lot more that I can say on this subject," Whitmer said.
Though the governor defended Gordon and the state’s pandemic response.
“There were not any improprieties with Director Gordon's work. It's simply that he tendered his resignation, and I accepted it,” Whitmer added.
Gordon released his own statement Tuesday, saying in part that he was “grateful to have served” the state. He also talked about the personal toll the pandemic has had on his family, including the recent death of his father.
The House Oversight Committee will also hold hearings over new legislation that would make the governor's office and legislative branch open to Freedom of Information Act requests. While running for governor, Whitmer campaigned on making the state's executive office more transparent.