Robert Gordon: Whitmer told me it was time for a 'new direction'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Robert Gordon, Michigan's former health director who abruptly resigned on Jan. 22, said he made the decision after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told him it was time to go in a "new direction."

Gordon revealed the comment at the beginning of a Thursday morning state House Oversight Committee hearing. The Republican-controlled panel subpoenaed Gordon last week to appear before the panel. GOP lawmakers voiced concerns that the $155,606 separation agreement Whitmer's administration reached with Gordon violated a constitutional provision barring "extra compensation" paid to any public officer after the person's "service has been rendered."

The former health director said he was told to join a video conference call with members of the governor's staff on Jan. 22, the same day her administration announced it would reopen indoor dining at restaurants on Feb. 1.

"When I arrived I saw the governor and members of her staff," Gordon told lawmakers. "And the governor said to me, 'Robert, (I'm) grateful for your service. I think it's time to go in a new direction.' She subsequently dropped off the call."

Gordon seemed to be unclear about the specific reasons for the governor's decision. However, he said there were disagreements about elements of the state's reopening plans. He had privately advocated for a more cautious approach to reopening restaurants, according to emails previously reported by The Detroit News.

"It’s a matter of public record. There are emails out there," Gordon said when asked about the differences he had with Whitmer.

Gordon said there are "black and white" issues in the COVID-19 response, like the need to wear masks.

"I think this is a difference of opinion that was in a gray area, where I don’t think there was a clear … answer,” he said.

Gordon said he was "quite comfortable" signing the ultimate order. Under the state's public health code, it's the state health director who has the power to sign orders limiting gatherings to combat a pandemic.

At times Thursday, he also defended the governor, saying he believes she is committed to saving lives.

Thursday's committee hearing provided the most detailed information yet about what led to Gordon's resignation and a $155,506 separation deal amid the pandemic.

Gordon told lawmakers that Whitmer's administration had offered him the separation deal through the Michigan Attorney General's office and the payment was "for entering the agreement." Gordon said Mark Totten, Whitmer's legal counsel, offered him an opportunity to resign on Jan. 22. But Gordon said no threats were made about what would happen if he didn't resign.

"It was made clear to me that the governor wanted to go in a new direction," Gordon said. "And I, as a public servant and an at-will employee, understood what that meant and resigned."

His separation deal became public on March 1 after Freedom of Information Act requests by The Detroit News. Under the agreement, the former health director received $155,506 in exchange for dropping any potential legal claims against the state and maintaining confidentiality about the circumstances that led to his departure. The payment represented nine months of salary and health benefits.

Gordon and the Whitmer administration 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.

The governor has said little about what led to Gordon's departure.

Robert Gordon, Michigan's former health director, appears before the House Oversight Committee on Thursday, April 29, 2021.

"Due to the nature of the agreement, there's not a lot more that I can say on the subject," Whitmer said at a press conference in March. "However, I do want to say this: There were not any improprieties with Director Gordon’s work.

"It’s simply that he tendered his resignation. And I accepted it.”

Later, amid criticism from Republican lawmakers, the Whitmer administration and Gordon agreed to drop the confidentiality provision of the agreement. Initially, he declined a request to voluntarily appear in front of the Oversight Committee, and Whitmer has still provided little information about what occurred.

In a letter to Oversight Chairman Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, last month, Gordon acknowledged that "reasonable people" disagreed in decisions related to the state's COVID-19 response

"This was healthy: the stakes were life and death, and different people have different roles," Gordon wrote in the March 18 letter. "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."

The House Oversight Committee voted 6-3 to subpoena Gordon last week. The subpoena sought Gordon's testimony about his January separation and the separation agreement.

Johnson said he believes the payment to Gordon was a "clear violation" of the constitutional provision barring extra compensation because the former director didn't have plans to file a lawsuit.

But Democrats disagreed, contending that just because Gordon didn't plan to sue, it doesn't mean that there wasn't value in reaching an agreement in which he released potential legal claims down the road.