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Michigan mystery: Former COVID policy chief took Whitmer payout, advised Biden transition

Official was paid $155,000 by Whitmer administration as part of a non-disclosure agreement.

Updated: March 11, 2021 - 12:47pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

Former Michigan health director Robert Gordon oversaw the implementation of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's controversial COVID-19 nursing home policy, one which, like that of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, was beset by allegations that the state had undercounted the number of COVID nursing home deaths. 

Gordon raised eyebrows when he abruptly left the Whitmer administration in January for reasons that have yet to be disclosed — and controversy erupted earlier this month when it was revealed that Gordon received a $155,000 payout upon his departure, with Whitmer herself confirming that Gordon has been bound to silence regarding the terms of his severance deal. 

"The nature of the separation agreement is that when someone leaves, there are terms to it and you cannot share every term to it," Whitmer sad earlier this month. "That's simply what it is."

Gordon, it turns out, also advised the Biden presidential transition team on healthcare policy. With Whitmer now under fire for her policy directing state nursing homes to accept COVID-positive residents who had been discharged from hospitals, observers are trying to piece together a puzzle involving a fatally mistaken policy, official deception, and a lavish payout contingent on silence — a mystery with political and legal repercussions potentially stretching from Lansing to Washington, D.C.

Critics have alleged that policies sending COVID-positive patients back into the midst of vulnerable elderly populations squeezed together within the close confines of nursing homes created conditions that could hardly be better suited for coronavirus to spread and kill. 

Michigan's policy was administered by Gordon, a career politician who has held positions at the U.S. Department of Education and the Office of Management and Budget. During a May 2020 Michigan Senate Oversight Committee hearing, Gordon himself admitted that he was not confident that the state's reported total of COVID nursing home deaths at the time was accurate. 

"That number [of] COVID-related deaths that have been reported, I do not stand behind that number as an accurate and full accounting of COVID-related nursing home deaths and I wouldn’t want us to present it that way," he said at the time, adding: "I think that number is probably, in fact, I'm confident that number is an undercount."

It is not clear whether the state's current nursing home death count — a little over 5,000, according to the COVID Tracking Project — is up-to-date and accurate. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charlie LeDuff recently announced that he is suing the Whitmer administration to compel it to release that data.

Prior to his exit from the Whitmer administration, Gordon served in a prominent role on President Joe Biden's White House transition team. The transition's website identified him as the volunteer "team lead" in charge of the "agency review team" helping bring the federal Department of Health and Human Services in line with the Biden administration's policy goals. 

It is unknown whether Gordon is involved with the Biden administration in any form today. White House officials were unreachable prior to publication of this report.

Yet Gordon's role in Biden's transition shortly before he left the Whitmer administration with a $155,000 settlement tied to a vow of silence has added another layer to the mystery shrouding Whitmer's role in the state's policy of seeding nursing homes with returning, COVID-positive residents. 

Rep. Daire Rendon, who serves District 103 in the Michigan House of Representatives, told Just the News that the controversy "has been kind of a sore spot for the legislature."

"The governor has insisted on staying pretty mum about the whole process," Rendon said. [Gordon] made a pretty good salary while he was here. He was the so-called voice of the governor during a time when the governor controlled how people could live in the state under COVID. Why did he up and leave? Why did he get a payoff?

"Because they have not been forthcoming about that, there is once again talk about transparency for the governor. The way we’re looking at it, the governor has a lot of explaining to do — to the legislature and the people of Michigan."

Along with Whitmer, New York's Cuomo and officials in Pennsylvania are also facing searing questions over decisions to send COVID patients back into vulnerable nursing homes in the early phase of the pandemic in spring, 2020.

Officials at the outset of the pandemic were fearful that hospitals were on the verge of being overwhelmed by COVID patients, leaving numerous state leaders scrambling to free every possible hospital bed in anticipation of such surges. That fear led governors like Cuomo, Whitmer, California's Gavin Newsom, New Jersey's Phil Murphy and others to direct elderly COVID-positive patients back into long-term care facilities. 

The Cuomo administration has been embroiled in scandal over the last few months in part due to the revelation that the state had significantly undercounted nursing home deaths there. About 6,000 additional deaths have been added to that tally since January.