OPINION: Finley: Whitmer's hush money not routine

Nolan Finley, The Detroit News
·3 min read

Mar. 4—Note; This column has been updated from the original version to add information from the Blanchard administration.

The hush money scandal that is engulfing Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has a tip-of-the-iceberg feel.

Whitmer signed separation agreements with two of her top former aides, Health Director Robert Gordon and unemployment chief Steve Gray, that included large payouts and confidentiality clauses forbidding them from discussing their departure and employment. A third staffer, Deputy Health Director Sara Esty, got the severance but did not make a no-talk promise.

Whitmer went all Andrew Cuomo when asked about the extraordinary pacts at a press conference, angrily declaring them routine employment agreements and feigning offense that anyone would question their propriety.

That's a load of bull. Such deals have never been routine in Michigan, or in the public sector in general. And the appropriateness of the buyouts is highly questionable.

"First of all, a public employee can't have a confidentiality agreement because all of their actions and work belong to the public," says former Gov. John Engler. "You can't throw a shroud over the activity of somebody who held a public position and demand they say 'I can't talk about what I did in my public role because I signed an agreement to keep it private.'"

Engler was in office for 12 years, from 1991 to 2003, and the Legislature for 20 years before that. He says he never heard of gubernatorial appointees departing with a severance package or a confidentiality agreement.

I spoke with officials of other former administrations and got the same answer.

Dennis Muchmore, who served as chief of staff for former Gov. Rick Snyder, and John Walsh, his former budget director, could not recall anyone in that administration leaving with severance, and certainly not with a requirement they remain silent.

The closest example in the Snyder years was former Treasurer Andy Dillon, who was allowed to collect pay for his unused leave time for a couple of months after resigning.

Liz Boyd, former press secretary for Gov. Jennifer Granholm, checked with top officials of that administration and none had any recollection of an appointee leaving with the sort of deal given to Gordon and Gray.

Jim Blanchard, Democratic governor from 1983 to 1991, said he also never made such an agreement with a public employee.

That covers the 36 years of state government before Whitmer took over in 2018. So the justification for Whitmer's indignation at being asked to explain such an unusual practice is hard to figure.

"My experience is that you don't have confidentiality agreements unless it involves intellectual property," Walsh says. "That doesn't apply in the public sector."

Engler notes the state constitution forbids using public money for private purposes without a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. He says the separation package with Gordon seems to be a private purpose, since it benefits Whitmer and Gordon, but not Michigan citizens.

"I would ask the governor if she has a memorandum from her legal counsel defining her authority to do this," Engler says.

Whitmer is not likely to face an honest investigation from either Michigan's Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel or President Joe Biden's Justice Department.

That leaves only the Republican-controlled Legislature to demand accountability from the governor. Lawmakers must muster what power they can to get the answers Whitmer is refusing to give.

Whitmer appears to be hiding something. The people of Michigan deserve to know what it is.

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN

Sign up for the Nolan Out Loud morning report at detroitnews.com/newsletters.

Watch Finley on DPTV's "One Detroit" at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays.