Lansing — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration agreed to pay former state health department director Robert Gordon $155,506 in a separation deal that also required the two sides to maintain confidentiality about the circumstances that led to his abrupt departure.
The agreement is the clearest evidence yet that the split between Gordon, a central figure in the state’s response to COVID-19, and Whitmer was not amicable, and it shows the Democratic administration used taxpayer funds to ease his departure.
On Feb. 22, one month after Gordon resigned without explanation, he and Mark Totten, Whitmer’s chief lawyer, signed the four-page agreement. The state agreed to pay Gordon a total that represents nine months of salary and health benefits, and he released the state from any potential legal claims.
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Both Gordon and the Whitmer administration also pledged not to discuss the details of the resignation “in the interest of protecting deliberations among government officials,” according to the deal obtained through an open records request.
“In response to any inquiries from prospective employers, employer will state that employee voluntarily resigned,” the agreement says.
Both Gordon and Whitmer have refused to say why he stepped down on Jan. 22, fewer than eight hours after he signed an epidemic order to lift the suspension on indoor dining at restaurants.
Separation agreements are common among private business executives and sometimes among government officials, and they often include financial payouts, non-disparagement clauses and legal protections, according to experts.
The agreement with Gordon “speaks for itself” and the state Department of Health and Human Services is “looking forward to the future,” said Bob Wheaton, the department’s spokesman. Whitmer’s spokesman Robert Leddy said the administration can’t comment further on the personnel matter under the terms of the agreement.
“Executive separation agreements that include confidentiality terms and release of claims are fairly standard practice,” Leddy said.
Totten, Whitmer’s chief legal counsel, floated the idea of an “executive separation agreement” soon after the governor accepted Gordon’s resignation, according to emails obtained by The Detroit News.
“This email is to notify you that the governor has accepted your resignation as director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services today, January 22, 2021,” Totten wrote to Gordon. “If you would like to discuss an executive separation agreement, please contact Assistant Attorney General Jeanmarie Miller, Department of Attorney General.”
Totten sent the email at 2:41 p.m., 11 minutes before Gordon announced his resignation on social media.
Gordon declined to comment on the separation agreement.