Robert Gordon: 'Reasonable people' disagreed on COVID-19 decisions

Craig Mauger Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan's former health director Robert Gordon says "reasonable people" disagreed in decisions related to the state's COVID-19 response, his first explanation of why he abruptly resigned from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration during a pandemic.

In a letter to House Oversight Committee Chairman Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, Gordon declined a request that he appear before the committee at a future date to further explain his Jan. 22 departure. Less than an hour after the letter was released, Johnson escalated the dispute by announcing a plan to potentially subpoena the former health director to take questions from the Oversight Committee.

Gordon didn't specify in his letter what the disagreements were among top health officials but said there had been "robust conversations" on occasion.

"This was healthy: the stakes were life and death, and different people have different roles," Gordon wrote. "Michigan was hit hard by COVID early, and initially had the third highest fatality rate in the nation. But different perspectives can produce strong outcomes. Michigan has fallen to 21st in deaths per capita."

Robert Gordon

The letter was released less than two hours after Gordon and the Whitmer administration announced they had agreed to drop the confidentiality provision of his controversial separation arrangement. Michigan Information & Research Service News first reported the decision to waive the non-disclosure requirement.

Gordon and Bobby Leddy, Whitmer's spokesman, said the secrecy provision was dropped "in the interest of greater transparency." Despite the change, Leddy declined Thursday to provide more information about why Gordon resigned, repeating a past statement from the governor that there weren't any improprieties with his work.

"He resigned and the governor accepted his resignation," Leddy said.

Gordon stepped down without explanation on Jan. 22, the same day Whitmer announced a new epidemic order, signed by the then-health director, to reopen restaurants for indoor dining. Whitmer's administration agreed to pay Gordon $155,506 as part of the deal that also required the two sides to maintain confidentiality about the circumstances that led to his departure.

On Thursday, Johnson introduced a resolution that would give the House Oversight Committee subpoena power related to executive separation agreements.

"Ideally, we would like for Director Gordon to do this voluntarily," the House Oversight chairman said. "Obviously, with his letter this morning, that seems unlikely, which is problematic. ... It doesn’t do us any good if you're allowed to talk, but you refuse to.”

Through another resolution, the Michigan Senate on Thursday granted its Health Policy Committee the ability to subpoena "state records and files." But the proposal provided no indication of what the committee would be seeking.

A private citizen

On Feb. 22, Gordon and Mark Totten, Whitmer's chief lawyer, signed the four-page agreement. The state vowed to pay Gordon a total that represents nine months of salary and health benefits — or $155,506 — and he released the state from any potential legal claims.

The Detroit News obtained the agreement through open records requests on March 1. The revelation of the deal drew criticism from lawmakers who said public tax dollars shouldn't be used as part of separation deals that include non-disclosure requirements.

"The evidence is clear that Governor Whitmer’s actions have saved thousands of lives," Gordon wrote Johnson on Thursday. "I was honored to play a part in that work. Governor Whitmer deserves a health director with whom she is comfortable.

"I tendered my resignation, and she accepted it. I am happy now to be a private citizen, see my family, and contribute to our country in new ways. I submit this letter in lieu of testimony."

Johnson said he was glad the governor and Gordon agreed to lift the confidentiality provision, but it was "disappointing it took tremendous, sustained public pressure and outcry to get to this point."

"I have requested and will continue to request their testimony before the House's Oversight Committee," he said.

Whitmer held a Thursday morning press conference at Ford Field about the regional state-run vaccination site that begins next week but didn't take any questions from the media.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks about the mass vaccination site at Ford Field on Thursday, March 18, 2021. Whitmer did not take questions from the media on the same day her administration and former state health department director Robert Gordon said they had dropped the confidentiality provision from his separation agreement.

Since Gordon's deal was released, Whitmer's administration, the House and Senate have acknowledged more than 30 agreements with departing staff over the last five years involving nearly $1 million.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson acknowledged Thursday that separation agreements are used in the private sector but argued there is a need for “full disclosure and transparency” in government. In an interview with WDET’s Stephen Henderson, Benson said her office has not used non-disclosure agreements in her office.

“We do have to be mindful of the challenges that perhaps traditional employment decisions and conversations and agreements don’t always translate to the public arena,” Benson said.

Mystery lingers

Gordon led the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services through the first 10 months of the pandemic. He signed all of the health department's epidemic orders that the Whitmer administration used to fight COVID-19 after the Michigan Supreme Court in October ruled the law the governor used for unilateral emergency orders was an unconstitutional power grab from the Legislature.

Mystery remains about the specific disagreements that might have spurred Gordon's split. Much of the focus in Lansing has been on the Jan. 22 decision by the Whitmer administration to allow indoor dining at restaurants to resume on Feb. 1.

Gordon signed the epidemic order making the change but didn't appear at the press conference where it was announced. In the press release announcing the order, he  cautioned that "unmasked, indoor activities like dining and drinking" are "a source of high risk."

Less than six hours after the press conference, Gordon revealed his resignation on social media.

Andrea Bowden, a state health department staff member, had informed Gordon that his name wasn't on the list of attendees for the press conference the night before the event, according to emails The News obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

"OK," Gordon responded. "If they don’t want me there that will be a relief, but I think they do."

Public health experts have cited epidemic orders that eased COVID-19 restrictions in Michigan as one reason for increases in cases and the rate of positive tests during the past three weeks. The state reported 11,383 new infections last week, a seven-week high.

Staff Writer Sarah Rahal contributed.