Ex-Michigan health department deputy also got separation agreement

Craig Mauger, The Detroit News
·4 min read

Mar. 2—LANSING — Sarah Esty, who served as a deputy director while Robert Gordon led Michigan's health department, reached a separation agreement with the state in addition to Gordon, a department spokesman confirmed Tuesday morning.

The acknowledgment came a day after The Detroit News reported Gordon, who abruptly stepped down on Jan. 22, agreed to a $155,506 deal with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's administration that required the two sides to maintain confidentiality about the circumstances that led to his departure.

As of Tuesday morning, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services hadn't released the details of Esty's arrangement with the state. Esty didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gordon, who joined the Whitmer administration in January 2019, had been a central figure in Michigan's response to COVID-19, a virus linked to 15,534 deaths in the state. The News obtained Gordon's separation agreement through an open records request. The arrangement spurred criticism about the use of taxpayer funds and calls for investigation.

On Monday, Whitmer spokesman Robert Leddy said the administration can't comment further on the personnel matter under the terms of the agreement with Gordon.

"Executive separation agreements that include confidentiality terms and release of claims are fairly standard practice," Leddy said.

But Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said Tuesday that House Republicans are having discussions about subpoenaing Gordon to testify before the panel.

The fact that Gordon wasn't the only health official who received a separation agreement "highlights the need for more transparency," Johnson said.

The Oversight Committee is planning later this week to consider legislation to expand Michigan's open records law to the Legislature and governor's office. Johnson said the committee also plans to examine Whitmer's use of separation agreements. The deals should be put out in broad daylight because they use taxpayer dollars, he contended.

Esty was one of Gordon's top aides, working as the senior deputy director of policy and planning administration for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. She made $151,620 in 2020, according to a database of state government salaries.

A close ally of Gordon, Esty previously worked as a consultant focusing on health care and government projects before joining Gordon's team at the department, according to her official state biography. She also studied at Yale University, where the former director got his law degree.

According to a biography page on the website of the University of Michigan law school, where Esty serves as a lecturer, her duties at the health department included overseeing "the epidemic order drafting and issuance process."

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Esty has taken on a senior leadership role for the state's response," the website says.

Esty had been expected by some to leave the department when Gordon resigned on Jan. 22. She stepped down Friday, said Bob Wheaton, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

"Yes, there is a separation agreement with Sarah Esty," Wheaton said.

Gordon's resignation came less than eight hours after he signed a Jan. 22 epidemic order allowing restaurants to reopen at 25% capacity at the beginning of February. The order was announced by Whitmer at a press conference at 9:30 a.m. Gordon didn't attend the briefing.

At 7:49 a.m. Jan. 22, Esty sent Gordon an email asking if she had his "approval to sign" the order, according to messages obtained by The Detroit News. Gordon responded "yes" at 7:52 a.m.

Seven hours after sending that email, Gordon tweeted he had resigned from the Whitmer administration. Within 20 minutes, Whitmer announced she had picked Elizabeth Hertel, the department's senior chief deputy director for administration, to take his place.

"Robert Gordon has resigned from his position, and the governor has accepted his resignation," the press release from the governor's office announcing Hertel's promotion said about the former director.

As part of the Feb. 22 separation agreement, both Gordon and the Whitmer administration pledged not to discuss the details of the resignation "in the interest of protecting deliberations among government officials," according to the deal obtained through an open records request.

"In response to any inquiries from prospective employers, employer will state that employee voluntarily resigned," the agreement says.

Jonathan Warsh, who served as Gordon's chief of staff, also doesn't work for the department any longer, Wheaton confirmed Tuesday. Warsh's last day was in late February, the department spokesman said.

"There is no separation agreement with him," Wheaton said.

Warsh made $152,335 in 2020, according to a database of state employee salaries.

cmauger@detroitnews.com