Michigan separation agreement for second ex-health department employee worth thousands
The state signed a separation agreement on Jan. 29 with Sarah Esty, the former senior deputy director for policy and planning for the Department of Health and Human Services. Effective Jan. 31, the agreement says Esty would be placed on paid administrative leave through Feb. 26. The agreement was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The agreement did not indicate exactly how much money Esty would be paid. A health department spokesman said her annual salary was $156,060 and that the payment would be pro-rated. She likely received somewhere between $11,000 and $13,000 during her leave.
The agreement is the second to come to light this week, following the revelation of an arrangement with Robert Gordon, the former director of the department, that pays him $155,000 and includes a confidentiality clause. Republican lawmakers blasted the governor for the use of taxpayer dollars, announcing they are launching legislative investigations into the use of the money.
“I never thought Gretchen Whitmer would have such poor political judgement to do this. I mean, this makes it seem like there’s a lot more to this story,” said Rep. Matt Hall, R-Emmett Township, during a Republican press conference outside the state Capitol on Tuesday.
“I know the people of Michigan are demanding answers and we’re going to fight for them.”
The Esty agreement states she agrees to release the state from any claims. Esty’s agreement does not include language barring her from speaking about why she left the department. It does state the department will offer a neutral reference to prospective employers.
Esty is now a lecturer at the University of Michigan law school. Her social media indicates she began that role in January. She did not immediately respond to questions sent via social media.
During a news conference Tuesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer avoided speaking specifically about why such separation agreements were necessary. She did push back on calling the agreements “hush money” payments.
“This pandemic has been a challenging, there’s no question. It’s been hard on seniors, it’s been hard on students, it’s been hard on small businesses. And to be candid, it’s been hard on everyone who serves in state and local government as well,” Whitmer said.
“Robert Gordon and his team were an incredibly important part of our response, and I appreciate his service to our state. Separation agreements…are used often in the public and private sector when someone in a leadership position leaves an organization. And due to the nature of the agreement, there’s not a lot more I can say on the subject.”
Republican lawmakers such agreements with public funds are not common.
Gordon resigned abruptly on Jan. 22, announcing his decision publicly in a mid-afternoon tweet. Later that day, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Elizabeth Hertel would succeed Gordon. The announcement did not say why Gordon left or thank him for his service.
The following week the governor remained evasive when asked questions about Gordon’s departure. She did thank him for his service leading a massive department through a pandemic.
In a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, Gordon thanked Whitmer for allowing him to serve.
Lawmakers and other critics of the state’s response to COVID-19 frequently directed their anger at Gordon. He always defended decisions to institute capacity restrictions at businesses and indoor gatherings, pointing to data indicating mandates generally correlate with improvements in COVID-19 trends.
But opponents argued the economic impacts of those orders were drastic, unnecessarily imperiling businesses. This led to at times testy exchanges between lawmakers and Gordon during several hearings over the course of last year.
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