Michigan House panel OKs resolution to subpoena former health director

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

A Michigan House panel on Thursday voted to give itself the power to subpoena former Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon so it can ask him about his January departure and the non-disclosure agreement he entered with the state. 

The resolution granting the panel authority passed 6-2 along party lines, with two Democratic lawmakers voting no and one Democratic lawmaker abstaining. The resolution next goes to the House for a vote by the full chamber. 

Gordon was paid $155,506 earlier this year in a separation deal that required the director and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration to maintain confidentiality about the circumstances that led to his departure. 

Former Michigan Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon has again rejected a request by a Michigan House committee to testify about why he left the Whitmer administration in January 2021.

Whitmer and Gordon agreed to lift the confidentiality provision in the agreement in March, but neither has explained the reasons for Gordon's departure. The former state health director told House Oversight Committee Chairman Steve Johnson in a letter that "reasonable people" disagreed on decisions related to the state's COVID-19 response and there were healthy, "robust conversations" on those issues. But he has declined invitations to testify before the committee.

After Gordon's departure, the committee had no plans to subpoena him but the $155,000 separation agreement provided a reason for oversight, Johnson said Thursday. 

"When you see that there's an agreement for a lot of money to stay quiet that is when a lot of red flags go up," said Johnson, R-Wayland.

Gordon wrote Johnson Thursday, declining again to testify and reiterating comments he's made previously about his departure. 

"As I've shared before, elected chief executives need to make final decisions about policy with confidential advice," Gordon said. "They also need to be comfortable with their agency heads. I am happy now to be a private citizen, see my family and contribute in new ways."

Emails obtained by The Detroit News showed Gordon had a more cautious approach to reopening restaurants this year than what was eventually announced on the day of his departure.

Some Democratic lawmakers pushed back on the subpoena resolution Thursday, arguing that there is no proof of wrongdoing, that any investigation should be left up to the auditor general and that the Legislature should review its own separation agreements if the committee is willing to investigate Gordon's. 

"If you are taking objection to a separation agreement, then we should look at our own, too," said Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township, referring to the roughly $59,500 spent on House agreements and the $632,144 spent on Senate agreements over the last seven years.

Johnson said it would make no legal sense for the Legislature to subpoena itself and argued that those agreements were different because they didn't involve Michigan's top health official in the middle of a pandemic. 

Rep. Jack O'Malley, R-Lake Ann, requested the auditor general review separation agreements and payments over $50,000 amid all administrations. House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, issued a directive last month that banned severance agreements that give more than six weeks of pay