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Ex-health chief: I quit after Whitmer wanted ‘new direction’

April 29, 2021 GMT
FILE- In a Dec. 18, 2020, file photo, provided by the Michigan Office of the Governor, then Michigan health director Robert Gordon addresses the state in Lansing, Mich. Gordon, Michigan's former health director said Thursday, April 29, 2021, that he resigned in January after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told him it was "time to go in a new direction." (Michigan Office of the Governor via AP, File)
FILE- In a Dec. 18, 2020, file photo, provided by the Michigan Office of the Governor, then Michigan health director Robert Gordon addresses the state in Lansing, Mich. Gordon, Michigan's former health director said Thursday, April 29, 2021, that he resigned in January after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told him it was "time to go in a new direction." (Michigan Office of the Governor via AP, File)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan’s former health director said Thursday that he resigned in January after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told him it was “time to go in a new direction,” telling lawmakers he was comfortable signing an order to relax COVID-19 restrictions despite having had a difference opinion with the governor.

Robert Gordon’s statement confirmed what Whitmer’s office had refused to say publicly despite his controversial $155,000 severance deal — that he was ousted after two years on the job. Gordon, with the governor’s support, tightened and eased coronavirus restrictions in the fall and winter after the state Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a law that underpinned her orders.

On Jan. 22, the day the governor and health officials cleared the way for indoor restaurant dining to resume at 25% capacity, Gordon said he was invited to a video conference call with several members of Whitmer’s staff. He noticed she, too, was present.

“The governor said to me, Robert, grateful for your service. I think it’s time to go in a new direction,” he told the Republican-led House Oversight Committee, which subpoenaed him after he declined to voluntarily appear. Whitmer left the call. Her chief legal counsel Mark Totten offered him an opportunity to resign, “and I did,” Gordon said.

He said he was serving as an appointee and “it’s important that the governor is comfortable with you in that role.”

The separation agreement has come under criticism from GOP legislators because of the six-figure payout and a confidentiality provision, which was later rescinded. It also released the state from legal claims, which is standard in such deals.

Gordon, who led the Department of Health and Human Services, did not elaborate on what disagreements there were in the days leading up to the revised order but noted “there are emails out there.” They show he favored limiting the number of restaurant patrons to 20 unless establishments were certified following a ventilation inspection. The maximum instead is 100, and the inspection program is voluntary.

“This is a difference of opinion that was in a gray area where I don’t think there was a clear right answer,” he said. “That’s why I made one recommendation. We reached another conclusion. I was quite comfortable signing the order.”

Whitmer has said little about the reasons for Gordon’s departure.

Gordon said he had “zero intention” of filing an employment lawsuit, which Republicans said is another reason the severance agreement, which was signed a month after his abrupt exit, is suspect. Committee Chairman Steve Johnson of Wayland said the retroactive compensation is a “clear violation” of the state constitution.

“The governor’s team had no reason to suspect that he would sue them. And they certainly didn’t have reason to suspect that they were liable for over $155,000,” he said. “What did the taxpayers get? They lost $155,000.”

But Democratic Rep. David LaGrand of Grand Rapids said “the fact that you don’t have a current intention to sue wouldn’t mean that there’s not value in limiting your ability to sue in the future if you change your mind.”

Gordon, who was replaced by a top deputy, Elizabeth Hertel, defended Whitmer despite his removal.

“She has governed effectively in the face of enormous headwinds,” he said.

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Follow David Eggert at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00