Branstad administration scandal news and reaction thread (updated)

While Governor Terry Branstad vacations in Arizona this week, his administration is facing new allegations of misconduct. As first reported in the Sunday Des Moines Register, at least six former state employees were offered secret settlement deals after claiming they were forced out of their jobs for political reasons. Today, Democratic State Senator Bill Dotzler announced that he is seeking a federal investigation into the actions of Iowa Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert, whom Dotzler accused of interfering with the work of administrative law judges.

After the jump I’ve posted several links about both scandals as well as some political reaction. Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

Jason Clayworth’s story for the March 16 Sunday Des Moines Register is a must-read. He interviewed six former state employees who lost their jobs since Branstad became governor again. All claim political factors led to their firings or resignations. All were asked to sign confidentiality agreements to keep them from discussing their settlements. You should click through to read Clayworth’s report, but here’s an excerpt:

But in grievance complaints filed before the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board and interviews with the Register, the former employees say their complaints and settlements show evidence of systematic efforts by Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration to embrace widespread Republican cronyism. […]

The settlements were shuffled through state agencies, avoiding the typical process of being approved by and made public through the Iowa Appeal Board.

The Register obtained the settlements through Iowa’s open-records law. State officials acknowledged last week that without the Register’s specific request for these records, there was little chance the public would have known about the settlements.

The employees whose jobs were eliminated held positions that ranged from a public health supervisor to a design engineer and were so-called merit-based workers. That means they have certain legal rights and generally can bump into other available state jobs ahead of workers with less experience if their jobs are eliminated. The employees, who collectively were paid $282,314 in settlements, contend that they would have maintained their state jobs had the state not violated workplace employment practices.

Branstad wasn’t in town for his regular weekly press conference, so Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds handled questions on Monday morning. Predictably, she denied that she, the governor, or anyone in the governor’s office knew about the secret deals with former state employees.

“We found it troubling when we learned about the confidentiality clause,” Reynolds says. “And we intend to put together a group that will perform a comprehensive review of the process.”

Reynolds says she does not believe the governor’s staff was not involved in firing these Democrats and paying them to keep quiet about their dismissals. It was the state agency managers who drew up those deals, according to Reynolds.

“We’re not a micromanager and we expect them to manage their office,” Reynolds says. “If something does raise that we believe needs to reviewed at that point, we will step in and put together a group that will review this in a comprehensive manner so we can either take action on whatever steps need to be taken action on moving forward.”

Perhaps the governor and lieutenant governor were kept out of the loop on some details, but I find it hard to believe that no one on Branstad’s staff knew about these practices. Anyway, what ever happened to “the buck stops here”?

State Senator Jack Hatch, who is running for governor, commented, “For Governor Branstad’s office to claim the Governor had no idea about these secret payouts insults the intelligence of Iowans.” Citing a “pattern” of Branstad denying knowledge of scandals that have happened during his tenure, Hatch also called for an investigation:

They were managers who were doing their job and they were managers over several administrations and they were doing their work. It is clear from these agreements they were fired. They were given payment to keep quiet,” Hatch says. “Both are illegal and there’s going to have to be some sort of investigation.”

While non-disclosure agreements are common in the private sector, Hatch contends that’s not the case in state government and, according to Hatch, the kind of “political interference”  described in these cases is against the law.

“That kind of intimidation by the executive to employees who are managers who are doing their job is a bit frightening, I think,” Hatch says.

The Iowa Democratic Party’s executive director, Troy Price, spoke to the Des Moines Register after Reynolds’ press conference.

“Having worked in the governor’s office, I think it’s completely unbelievable that a state agency would pay tens of thousands of dollars and not let the governor’s office know,” said Troy Price, executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party and a former staff member of former Gov. Chet Culver.

Price continued: “If any state agency had not told the governor’s office” of such payouts when he worked for the state, “that would have been a huge problem. Had that happened, there would have been serious corrective actions taken.”

Speaking on the Iowa Senate floor today, Democratic Senator Joe Bolkcom was more derisive.

What did the fired workers know that was worth $300,000 in hush money?

I’m thinking the secret is that the Branstad Administration is firing state workers without cause and replacing them with political cronies.

The employment of state employees should not be subject the whims of whoever happens to be Governor.

That’s not what Iowans expect.  That’s not according to Iowa law.

Lt. Governor Reynolds says she and the governor had no idea what was going on.

She says the governor’s office is going to investigate all this.

Today, we read in the newspaper that this will be another super-duper Branstad special investigation.

You can tell because the formerly secret settlements  are going to be discussed …. in secret meetings.  

Let’s get real.  Who believes the  Governor Branstad did not know about these secret payouts?

Governor Branstad is asking us to believe his staff doesn’t tell him when they make hush money payoffs using state tax dollars.

The Des Moines Register’s political columnist Kathie Obradovich also sounded skeptical.

Politically, the defense that nobody in the governor’s office was aware of the settlements is precarious. At the very least, the Register reported contacting staff with the governor’s office and Department of Management for comment before the article was published.

The reporting process aside, the assertion that the governor, lieutenant governor and their staff were in the dark about these settlements makes Branstad look out of touch. Reynolds said they don’t micromanage their agency directors, which makes it sound like the administration isn’t taking responsibility for the actions of its own appointees. […]

Reynolds said that Branstad intends to create a working group to look into the procedures related to the settlements. She didn’t offer any details, other than to say the group would include “all the stakeholders” and have the goal of restoring open and transparent operation.

That’s a fine idea – as long as the group itself is open and transparent. Branstad should publicly announce appointments to the group and declare it will hold all meetings in the open with advance notice to the public.

Clayworth’s latest report, published in the Des Moines Register on March 19,

Reynolds used the word “transparent” or “transparency” five times in describing and answering questions about the administration’s interest in learning more about the secret settlements. She told reporters the administration would appoint a work group to “perform a comprehensive review of the process.” […]

But less than 24 hours later, Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said the work group will meet privately. Branstad is on vacation in Arizona and has yet to speak publicly about the issue.

The work group consists of three members: Matt Hinch, the governor’s chief of staff; Brenna Findley, the governor’s staff attorney; and David Roederer, the head of the Iowa Department of Management. Centers said he was uncertain if other members might be added to the work group. He said the group’s findings and any actions it takes will be made public.

Iowa’s open meetings law says committees created by government entities must be open to the public if they exercise some policy- or decision-making authority. The law also says that advisory bodies created by the governor that make recommendations on public policy are public.

Branstad’s administration has previously argued that a work group falls outside the public mandate because it is not a committee.

In a statement today, Iowa Democratic Party executive director Price commented, “We have yet to know exactly what the Governor’s staff knew and when.  Appointing his staff to secretly investigate themselves is irresponsible and a stunning display of arrogance.”

Meanwhile, Senate Oversight Committee Chair Janet Petersen is seeking further information about the payouts. From a March 18 press release:

Senate Oversight Committee Chair requests documents related to “hush money” payouts

On web: http://www.senate.iowa.gov/dem…

(Des Moines)  State Senator Janet Petersen of Des Moines, chair of the Iowa Senate Oversight Committee, has written a letter to Governor Branstad requesting “public documents related to secret settlement agreements with former state employees.”

Petersen seeks copies of all signed, unsigned and proposed “settlement agreements” between any state agency and former employees since January 14, 2011.  She also requests information on state department directors who requested such agreements and the names of persons who authorized the payments.

“Spending almost $300,000 provided by taxpayers to pay former state employers to keep silent is outrageous.  How did this happen?  What information was intended to be concealed by these payments?” said Petersen.

The second scandal to hit the Branstad administration this week broke today, when State Senator Bill Dotzler called a press conference to accuse Iowa Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert of harassing and intimidating administrative law judges. At the end of this post I’ve enclosed video from the press conference and a press release from the Iowa Senate. Dotzler said Wahlert fired Iowa’s chief administrative law judge and took over his duties herself, violating the separation of powers and creating an atmosphere of political interference. Among other things, administrative law judges settle some employment disputes. Because federal funding supports the administrative law judges, Dotzler is asking the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate Wahlert’s actions.

Branstad administration officials deny Dotzler’s claims.

Wahlert issued a statement Wednesday saying her agency’s administrative law judges are working diligently and are properly doing their jobs while making improvements to the adjudication process. This will ensure the state continues to receive federal money to administer the unemployment insurance program, she said.

Jimmy Centers, Branstad’s communications director, criticized Dotzler, accusing him of “Washington, D.C.-style partisan attacks” that have no place in Iowa. “The taxpayers expect their elected leaders to work in a bipartisan fashion to pass meaningful legislation, not engage in Senate Democrats’ petty political theater,” he said.

Iowa Senate press release, March 19:

Key Senator calls for federal investigation into Branstad Administration’s efforts to harass and improperly influence judges

Online version, documents, video: http://www.senate.iowa.gov/dem…

(Des Moines)  A key state legislator is seeking a federal investigation into Branstad Administration’s efforts to harass and improperly influence judges.

State Senator Bill Dotzler, co-chair of the Joint Economic Development Subcommittee, presented evidence at a Statehouse news conference focusing on the actions of Iowa Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert.  Dotzler said the evidence shows that Wahlert is improperly pressuring Administrative Law Judges to rule in favor of employers and against employees in unemployment cases.

“In a legal dispute, everyone should be treated fairly and with respect,” said Dotzler. “That’s not happening.  Branstad political appointee Teresa Wahlert has put herself directly in charge of Administrative Law Judges and is improperly-and I believe illegally-pressuring these judges to rule in favor of employers and against Iowa workers.”

In Iowa Workforce Development, there are federally funded administrative law judges who rule on disputes between employers and employees regarding unemployment claims. Under normal conditions, these judges are overseen by a chief Administrative Law Judge.

Dotzler released a letter he has sent to U.S. Department of Labor that calls on federal investigators to determine if Wahlert is violating federal laws requiring the fair and impartial administration of unemployment insurance benefits. In February, the Department of Labor concluded a similar review of Maine’s system for handling unemployment claims.

In Dotzler’s letter, he listed a number of specific concerns about Director Wahlert’s actions.  They include:

·       Director Wahlert created a hostile work environment for Administrative Law Judges who did not follow her pro-employer, anti-employee philosophy.

Director Wahlert, a political appointee, became the direct supervisor of the Administrative Law Judges after eliminating the Chief Administrative Law Judge’s position.

Director Wahlert directed the Administrative Law Judges to be involved with “outreach to community and business leaders” and required them to develop “tip sheets” to help employers win cases, actions which would interfere with their ability to impartially judge cases. Wahlert did not require anyone to create similar “tip sheets” to help employees in similar cases.

Dotzler drew attention to a similar case in Maine, where a federal review found that actions by conservative Governor  Paul LePage put fair hearings at risk.  In that case, US Department of Labor Regional Administrator Holly O’Brien wrote that:

“Under federal law, unemployment compensation appeal hearings must be fair and impartial, both in fact and appearance.  Political interference or undue political influence, even in appearance, can potentially destabilize the appeals process, undermine the credibility of a state’s unemployment compensation program, and generate additional workload which may result in delays in decisions or benefit payments.”

State Senator Bill Dotzler’s press conference of March 19 regarding alleged interference with administrative law judges:

UPDATE: Clayworth discussed his reporting on Iowa Public Radio’s “River to River” program.

Jon Neiderbach, the Democratic candidate for state auditor, pointed to this scandal as evidence that previous auditors have failed to properly examine how state government is being run.

Six pages. Yes, six pages. That’s the length of the State Auditor’s audit report on the Iowa Department of Administrative Services – an agency with a total budget of close to $100 million – for FY 2012. Really only three pages, since one page is a cover, one page is blank, and one page is a list of staff who worked on the audit. No mention of employees being fired because of politics, and no mention of secret “hush money” payments paid to these fired employees. And of course the audit report lacks the legally required assessments of how efficiently or effectively the agency is being run, and whether it is operating according to law and in a businesslike manner. Just some minor points about financial reporting and capital asset inventories. Clearly Iowa’s State Auditor is simply not doing the job.

Neiderbach further commented,

I am not a CPA. I’m a lawyer, experienced fiscal analyst, experienced management analyst, and someone who will provide vision and direction to CPAs and other specialists. Best to keep “experts” on tap, not on top. A three page audit of the Department of Administrative Services that doesn’t meet the requirements of Iowa law (see Section 11.4) shows the problem with having the CPAs on top.

  • Partisan purges have been obvious for awhile

    Anyone watching DAS saw what was happening.  At least one person avoided termination, but it supposedly required outside help. How many at-will employees were affected by partisan connections, demoted or reshuffled?

    IWD doesn’t sound much different.  Civic Skinny did a column last summer that mentioned it:  http://www.dmcityview.com/civi…

    The Branstad admin keeps tight watch on what happens in the agencies:  calls from policy advisers, meetings with the former chief of staff and others.  I don’t know if anyone would have put any of this in email, but something could have been said in a call or meeting.  Petersen’s document request is a start, but probably doesn’t go far enough (it’s not all about settlement agreements — look at how they defend the terminations as “restructuring” [DNR recently did that, too]). I do hope Oversight holds hearings; puts people under oath.  There’s obviously more to this story.

    • it's hilarious

      that they think letting Branstad’s chief of staff, David Roederer, and Brenna Findley meet in secret to discuss this will make the problem go away. Although given the media’s short attention span, maybe they will be able to ride it out.

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