Whitmer ‘bristles’ at ‘hush money’ term for former health director’s payout

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs a number of bills.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs a number of bills.(source: State of Michigan)
Published: Mar. 2, 2021 at 4:37 PM EST
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LANSING, Mich. (WJRT) - Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rejected the “hush money” term some Republicans are using to characterize the $155,000 payout for former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon.

Gordon abruptly resigned on Jan. 22 hours after Whitmer announced a new state health department order allowing restaurants to reopen for indoor dining on Feb. 1. Whitmer never has explained the specific reasons behind Gordon’s departure or whether she asked him to leave.

On Monday, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services confirmed that Gordon signed a separation agreement that provides him a $155,000 payout and nine months of continued health insurance. The department confirmed Tuesday that a top official under Gordon left under another separation agreement with an undisclosed payout.

During a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Whitmer claimed separation agreements like those offered to Gordon and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Deputy Director Sarah Esty are common when top leaders leave public and private organizations.

When questioned about Republicans’ claims that Gordon’s payout constitutes “hush money,” Whitmer said that is not the case.

“I really bristle at that characterization,” she said. “There are terms to it and you can’t share every term to it.”

Whitmer said there were no improprieties alleged against Gordon when he left. She said Gordon tendered his resignation, she accepted it and quickly appointed Elizabeth Hertel to take his place as the top official in Michigan’s largest state government department.

“I did really appreciate Robert’s work and I wish him well in the future,” Whitmer said.

Without discussing specifics of why Gordon left, Whitmer said the coronavirus pandemic has been difficult for everyone in Michigan -- including state officials in her administration working to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 and protect public health.

As Michigan Department of Health and Human Services director, Gordon ultimately was responsible for enacting public health epidemic orders setting COVID-19 restrictions beginning last fall. The Michigan Supreme Court invalidated the law Whitmer used to make orders on Oct. 2, so the state health department began issuing orders days later.

Gordon took heavy criticism, along with Whitmer, for tightening restrictions as Michigan’s key COVID-19 statistics reached record levels in the late fall and early winter months. Whitmer said the numbers show that restrictions she and Gordon imposed saved thousands of lives over the past year.

“Robert Gordon and his team were an incredibly important part of our response,” she said.

Gordon issued a statement on Tuesday that didn’t mention his separation agreement, but signaled his full support for Whitmer’s actions in battling COVID-19. He agreed that her actions helped save lives in Michigan.

“I believe that elected chief executives need to make final decisions about policy with confidential advice. They also need to be comfortable with their agency heads,” Gordon said. “Since the pandemic began, many leadership changes have happened in other states. It’s no surprise they would happen in Michigan.”

He said both of his parents contracted COVID-19 and his father died last weekend.

Republicans planned a press conference for Tuesday afternoon to discuss their concerns with the separation agreements signed by Gordon and Esty.

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