In defiance of calls for transparency from state lawmakers, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, is doubling down on the state’s policy of providing secretive severance packages to state officials.
In an executive directive, Whitmer states that agreements and payments can be used for a variety of purposes:
Separation agreements are used for many purposes, including to define the terms of employment during a period of transition; to secure the return of state property; and to mitigate legal exposure and potential costs to taxpayers through a release of claims against the state. (emphasis added)
The policy also says the state still does not have to explain why its employees leave their posts, are fired, or the reasons for severance packages and non-disclosure and confidentiality provisions surrounding their departures.
The current confidentiality rules that ensure secrecy after an “employment decision or dispute, including but not limited to the circumstances of the departure,” can remain.
The controversy began when the former director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) resigned abruptly on February 22. He received more than $155,000 from Michigan taxpayers as part of his severance package, which included a confidentiality agreement that denied the public any information on his resignation or the payout.
His resignation came on the same day Whitmer decided to lift some restrictions on bars and restaurants as the COVID-19 pandemic slows.
Later, news broke that the state’s former unemployment director Steve Gray was cut loose with an $85,000 severance package and similar confidentiality agreement in November. Gray’s office handled a massive influx of claims during the pandemic.
One state lawmaker in particular took exception to what have widely been viewed as “hush money” agreements between Whitmer and her former executive branch staff.
State Rep. Steve Johnson (R-MI-72), the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, wrote a scathing letter to MDHHS, blasting the organization for its secrecy.
“I am calling on the Department today to release to the public the separation agreement between Governor [Gretchen] Whitmer’s administration and former MDHHS Director Robert Gordon as well as any other similar agreements made with other public officials,” that letter said.
“In light of the recent details of the separation agreement which included a cash bonus to preserve confidentiality, I believe it is only right for the public to know what that agreement included which ultimately led to Robert Gordon’s abrupt departure earlier this year,” Johnson’s letter continued.
Johnson asked the MDHHS to testify publicly on many occasions about its decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There has been a blatant lack of transparency as the Department has denied my invitation on multiple fronts,” his letter said.
News of Gordon’s resignation came shortly before Whitmer’s COVID-19 nursing home policy came under scrutiny.
In a similar move to embattled New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), Whitmer decided to use nursing homes as “hubs” for infected COVID-19 patients. Lawmakers want to know how many nursing home deaths that policy may have caused in Michigan, after Cuomo intentionally concealed the number of nursing home deaths in New York.
– – –