Michigan GOP lawmakers seek to curb secret deals with department heads

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Midland lawmaker is seeking to bar the state from entering confidentiality agreements with former department heads after such a pact between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and former Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon surfaced this week.

Republican Rep. Annette Glenn's plan seeks the ban through legislation and budget language. It also would also require the disclosure of severance packages with high-ranking administration officials and annual reports to the Legislature on how much severance money was paid to which employees. 

Glenn's is the latest legislative response to the disclosure three previously unknown separation agreements with employees in Whitmer's administration. Gordon's $155,506 agreement and former unemployment director Steve Gray's $85,872 deal included requirements to "maintain confidentiality" regarding their employment and departures. 

Robert Gordon

"When the governor pays off high-ranking officials to keep them quiet, she’s hiding the very information that has affected the lives and livelihoods of people across Michigan for the past year. It isn’t right, and it’s got to stop," Glenn said.

Glenn's move came after Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, on Wednesday invited the former state health department director to testify before the House Oversight Committee "on the details of his resignation" and other problems he may have faced at the department. Johnson also cited Gordon's agreement Thursday as further proof of the need for reform in the state's public records law during an oversight committee hearing to discuss legislation that would do just that.

"The top health official in the state of Michigan resigning in the middle of a health pandemic and signing an agreement saying they can’t say anything," Johnson said Thursday. “... I think this highlights need for more transparency in government, not just in the governor’s office but in the Legislature as well.”

The proposed legislation would subject the Michigan Legislature and the governor's office to public records requests, overturning current exemptions that are rare by national standards. Michigan is one of two states to exempt the governor's office from public records requests, and one of eight to exempt state lawmakers.

State Rep. Annette Glenn, R-Midland, wants to bar separation agreements between the Michigan governor's office and state department directors.

"This definitely will help propel us from the bottom of those rankings," said Rep. Ryan Berman, the Commerce Township Republican who was the lead sponsor of the bills. Berman was referring to a 2015 study from The Center for Public Integrity ranking Michigan worst in the nation for government accountability and transparency.

Past efforts at passing similar legislation have stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, but lawmakers Thursday expressed optimism that they might elicit support this time around thanks to public pressure and because some current senators had supported past proposals while in the House. Liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan said Monday it would launch a 2022 ballot drive to subject Michigan's governor and Legislature to public records requests.

"This is not a partisan issue," said Rep. Darrin Camilleri, D-Trenton. "Governors change. State legislatures change. This is about making sure our institution holds up our promise to make sure that we are open and transparent to the people."

The 10-bill, bipartisan package would add the governor, lieutenant governor and their staffs into the existing Freedom of Information Act and create a separate statute called the Legislative Open Records Act that would cover the Legislature. The proposal would establish a filing and appeal process that includes fee guidelines, response periods, the designation of a "LORA coordinator" to respond to requests and a "Legislative Council administrator" to handle appeals. 

The legislation includes many exemptions for lawmakers and the governor, including communication with constituents, with the exception of lobbyists; personal or medical information or communication of an "advisory nature"; records pertaining to an ongoing internal investigation; and communication falling under attorney-client privilege.