(The Center Square) – When state health director Robert Gordon abruptly resigned in January, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer didn’t mention his $155,506-taxpayer-funded payout.
That sum was equal to nine months of Gordon's annual salary and health benefits. The monies received by Gordon release the state from any potential legal claims.
The above deal, first reported by the Detroit News through correspondence obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, contradicts her prior public statements regarding public transparency.
“State government must be open, transparent and accountable to Michigan taxpayers,” Whitmer said in a Jan. 3, 2019 news release. “To continue and earn public confidence, we must set good examples and act ethically at all times.”
A month after Gordon abruptly resigned, he signed a confidentiality agreement with Whitmer’s chief lawyer Mark Totten, which stated: "In response to any inquiries from prospective employers, employer will state that employee voluntarily resigned.”
Gordon resigned less than 24 hours after signing a Jan. 22 order loosening restaurant restrictions after a 75-day indoor dining shutdown.
The six-figure taxpayer-funded secret payout comes as advocates push for more open records — the only reason the public knows about the payout, which explains why so many lawmakers and governors impede the legislation.
On Monday, Rep. Annette Glenn, R-Midland, called on Whitmer to revoke the severance package deal.
Glenn said she will propose that her subcommittee for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy budget prohibit using tax dollars for such payoffs if designed to silence departing officials.
“When it comes to state agencies responsible for decisions that put public safety and people’s lives and livelihoods on the line, the people of Michigan have every right to full disclosure and transparency,” Glenn said in a statement. “Gov. Whitmer should not be allowed to use state tax dollars to pay ‘hush money’ to departing state regulators, and now that it’s been revealed, she should reverse her attempt to force taxpayers to foot the bill for buying Mr. Gordon’s silence.”
The deal raises questions whether the payout bought Gordon’s silence about Whitmer’s COVID-19 nursing home policy of sending COVID-19 positive patients into nursing homes, Glenn said,
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is now facing possible criminal prosecution for allegedly undercounting COVID-19 nursing home deaths after he sent COVID-19 positive patients into nursing homes.
“Now she’s doubling down on this troubling keep-taxpayers-in-the-dark mindset even more by forcing taxpayers to finance keeping state employees quiet after they’re no longer working for the state,” Glenn said. “Why these brazen, ongoing, escalating in-your-face schemes to keep people quiet at all costs, even if she has to use taxpayers’ money to do it? The people of Michigan have a right to know.”
Glenn and Progress Michigan have said they will attempt to make state government more transparent, the latter through a 2022 ballot initiative repealing all gubernatorial and legislative FOIA exemptions.
“Every year it’s the same story: bills with good intentions that don’t go quite far enough and include ludicrous carve outs for the legislature in an effort to bribe Republicans to support them, slowly die on the vine because of a lack of political will or commitment to real transparency in the legislature," Executive Director of Progress Michigan Lonnie Scott said in a statement.
"The public is sick of it and we’re done playing games,” Scott continued. “The people of Michigan deserve accountable and transparent government and we will be pursuing a 2022 ballot initiative to bring real transparency to Lansing. We’ve seen what elected officials like [Senate Majority Leader] Mike Shirkey say when he doesn’t know he’s being recorded, imagine what transparency into his emails could show.”
Michigan is one of only two states in which the governor’s office and lawmakers aren’t subject to Freedom of Information Act requirements.
State Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, tweeted: ”While families and businesses across Michigan are struggling to make ends meet, the Whitmer Administration is paying out six-figure checks to keep disgraced bureaucrats quiet about their ongoing train of failures.”