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Whitmer says severance deals are common, but other top staff left without them

Posted at 6:10 PM, Mar 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-03 18:38:19-05

(WXYZ) — Two days after severance agreements for two former top Whitmer administration officials came to light, the Governor tried once again to diffuse what is quickly becoming the biggest controversy of her first term in office.

“It is not uncommon for a separation agreement to be struck, whether it’s in the private sector or the public sector,” she said before a throng of reporters, “especially when it’s someone in leadership who’s leaving.”

Whitmer was responding to questions about why she paid Robert Gordon, the former head of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, a $155,000 severance that came with a confidentiality clause after he abruptly stepped down in January.

“There’s not much more I can add to it beyond that,” she said. “That’s the whole story.”

But the whole story remains shrouded behind a confidentiality clause that both Gordon and former Unemployment Insurance Agency director Steve Gray agreed to when they departed the administration. When Gray left in November, it was with $86,000 in severance the same confidentiality agreement.

Both of their departments have been embroiled in controversies since COVID-19 struck. At the Department of Health and Human Services, Whitmer’s shutdown orders and her policy to transport COVID-19 positive patients to nursing homes was frequently criticized.

At the Unemployment Insurance Agency, Gray and his team often took months to pay out benefits to those laid off.

“I think what you can draw from a situation like this is the parties at issue did not want one another to be making comments on the parting of the ways,” said employment attorney Deborah Gordon.

While deals like these are more often seen in private businesses, she said they do happen in government.

“Packages are awarded, we’ve seen that so many times over the years,” she said. “We’ve seen them from the City of Detroit, the officials that leave there, (as well as) Wayne County.”

However, other high-profile Whitmer appointees have left her administration recently without the deals Gordon and Gray received.

Jay Rising, Whitmer’s former cabinet secretary, told 7 Action News that when he left in August, there was no severance or confidentiality clause. The same was true of former Budget Director Chris Kolb when he left in December.

While Governor Whitmer has gone to lengths not to explain why she entered into the agreements with Gordon and Gray, she was singing a very different tune back in 2013 when she was in the state senate.

In a speech on the Senate floor posted in 2013, Whitmer excoriated then-Governor Rick Snyder for his use of the NERD Fund, a little-known non-profit operated by Snyder advisers that paid his top lieutenant, Rich Baird, with donor funds.

“The governor’s actions have been a far cry from the open and transparent governor he promised the people of Michigan he would be,” Whitmer said.

Eventually, Snyder disbanded the NERD Fund and move Baird to the public payroll, but never revealed who donated to the fund or itemized how it spent money.

“Rather than vowing to put his cards down on the table for all to see, he’s doubled down on his efforts to not only maintain the shroud of secrecy but even legitimize it,” Whitmer said.