Ex-health director Gordon set to testify after House panel issues subpoena

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Former Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon said Thursday he would testify before a Michigan House committee after it issued a subpoena earlier in the day to compel his testimony about why he parted ways with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in January. 

The committee voted 6-3 along party lines to subpoena Gordon, who left state employment in January and received $155,506 in a separation deal that required the director and Whitmer's administration to maintain confidentiality about the circumstances of his departure.

The subpoena seeks Gordon's testimony about his January separation and the separation agreement.

The subpoena ensures the committee does its due diligence to "provide answers to the people of Michigan," said Rep. Steve Johnson, a Wayland Republican and chairman for the House committee.

Johnson said the committee's action Thursday is believed to be the first time since 2004 the Legislature has subpoenaed an individual to testify. At that time, a House panel authorized subpoenas for 16 people associated with an Oakland County Intermediate School District financial scandal. The chambers have subpoenaed records regularly in recent months.

"I am committed to ensuring a more transparent and honest government,” Johnson said in a statement. “Agreements signed in the dark for exorbitant sums of money is neither transparent nor honest.”

Gordon is proud of his work and grateful to have served the state, said Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for Gordon. 

"While Robert strongly believes that public officials should be able to receive confidential advice from their senior leaders, he will of course honor the subpoena and testify," Baer said.

Robert Gordon, former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

Whitmer and Gordon agreed to lift the confidentiality provision in March amid outcry over the agreement, but neither has explained the reason or reasons for Gordon's departure.

Gordon told Johnson in a letter that "reasonable people" disagreed on decisions related to the state's pandemic response. Gordon said he and the administration had "robust," healthy conversations about the COVID-19 response, but he declined invitations to testify before the committee.

Johnson told lawmakers Thursday that Gordon's testimony next week will not be a moment for "grand-standing," "political gotcha question" or making personal statements. 

"I don't want to turn this into some political stage that everyone's just trying to score political points," Johnson said. "The point of oversight is to get answers and to get proper answers you've got to ask good questions."

The panel on Thursday also unanimously approved a bill that would limit severance agreements and trigger reporting requirements if an agency entered into a severance agreement. 

Johnson said elements of the bill had been negotiated with Whitmer's office. 

The bill by Rep. John Roth, R-Traverse City, would prohibit the state from entering an employment contract that granted more than 12 weeks severance pay or prohibited an employee from disclosing alleged violations of law or harassment policies or the existence of the contract. 

Exceptions to the 12-week limit were included for employees in the executive and legislative branches if they are advised by counsel that such an agreement would avoid greater litigation costs. 

Any severance packages greater than six weeks of pay must be reported to the Legislature and posted on the public body's website, according to the bill.