Iowa Senate confirms all but one Branstad appointee during 2015 session

The Iowa legislature’s 2015 session drags on amid unresolved conflict over various budget issues, especially K-12 school funding. But one aspect of the lawmakers’ work is complete for this year. The Democratic-controlled Iowa Senate has confirmed all but one of Governor Terry Branstad’s more than 200 nominees. The overwhelming majority of those votes were unanimous or nearly so.

In recent years, senators have voted against confirming one or two Branstad nominees. This year no nomination failed on the Iowa Senate floor, and only one department head was ever in real danger of not being confirmed to do his job: Department of Human Services Director Chuck Palmer.

Branstad has occasionally withdrawn nominees who didn’t have support from the necessary two-thirds majority in the Iowa Senate. This year the governor didn’t need to exercise that power, although he sidestepped a near-certain rejection by accepting Teresa Wahlert’s resignation in January, rather than reappointing her to run Iowa Workforce Development. In addition, Iowa Law Enforcement Academy Director Arlen Ciechanowski recently announced plans to retire, tacitly acknowledging the votes weren’t there to confirm him.

Follow me after the jump for background on the controversies surrounding Palmer and Ciechanowski and details on Palmer’s confirmation vote–the closest call by far for any Branstad appointee this year.

Palmer headed the Department of Human Services in Branstad’s administration during the 1990s. The Iowa Senate unanimously confirmed him to return to his old job in March 2011. However, some Senate Democrats lost confidence in Palmer’s leadership over the abrupt closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home, following allegations about the mistreatment of some girls housed there. One senator demanded Palmer’s resignation last year, but Branstad defended the DHS director.

Branstad’s decision to close two of Iowa four mental health residential facilities this year, without input from state lawmakers, poisoned the well further. Democratic senators asked Palmer a lot of tough questions about the move during his confirmation hearing in March.

Palmer told senators he had recommended that the facilities be closed, but the governor made the final decision out of a list of significant budget-cutting options Palmer drew up.

“The budget has driven some of our decisions maybe more quickly than what some of us would like,” Palmer said, “but that’s the reality that I’ve faced.”

Senator Rich Taylor, a Democrat from Mount Pleasant, said he’s not come across “a single person” who thinks closing the two facilities is a good idea.

“I’ve always respected you. I’ve always thought you did a good job,” Taylor said, “until recently.”

Senate President Pam Jochum, a Democrat from Dubuque, echoed those concerns.

“Maybe there’s a master grand plan out there on what we’re going to do with all the folks who have been in these MHIs, but we’ve not heard it,” Jochum told Palmer during today’s Senate Human Resources Committee meeting.

A few days after that hearing, Taylor summed up the case against Palmer as follows:

“I just think that director Palmer’s lost his way,” Taylor says. “He used to have the best interests of the most vulnerable citizens of Iowa at heart and I think he’s lost that.” […]

The Senate Human Resources Committee on Tuesday voted to make Palmer’s nomination eligible for a vote in the full senate, but the committee isn’t recommending whether senators should vote against Palmer or allow him to continue at the department.

Taylor was the only member of the committee to express himself as an outright no on Palmer’s nomination.

“I don’t believe that it’s totally his decision to close down these MHIs, but he is taking ownership of it,” Taylor says. “If you’re going to fall on the sword, usually that’s going to kill you and, in my opinion, it has ended his usefulness as our head of the Department of Human Services.”

Gubernatorial nominees need at least 34 votes for Senate confirmation. That means at least ten of the 26 Democrats would have to join the 24 Republicans (assuming all are present) to vote yes. When Palmer’s nomination came up for a vote last month, Democratic State Senator Rob Hogg referenced the closure of the Juvenile Home as well as the imminent demise of mental health facilities in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant.

“So this is a gut check moment for this body,” Hogg said. “I think it is essential that we say, ‘No, we are not going to tolerate lawbreakers as directors of our departments.’”

Senator David Johnson, a Republican from Ocheyedan, said Palmer is a compassionate and stable leader.

“This is a gut check,” Johnson said. “…I have full confidence in director Palmer.”

Johnson also discounted a district court judge’s ruling that Governor Branstad overstepped his authority in closing the Juvenile Home.

“What a judge says is an opinion,” Johnson said. “I haven’t seen anything there that negates what happened last November. Elections have consequences and if there was a lack of confidence by the people in the direction that we’re going, we would have heard that.”

For what it’s worth, Iowans overwhelmingly oppose Branstad’s plan to close the two mental health institutes, which is probably why the governor never mentioned the idea during last year’s campaign.

In the end, senators confirmed Palmer with five votes to spare, 39 to 11. The roll call in the Senate Journal for April 14 shows the following Democrats voted no on Palmer:

Tod Bowman

Chris Brase

Rita Hart

Rob Hogg

Pam Jochum

Janet Petersen

Herman Quirmbach

Brian Schoenjahn

Steve Sodders

Rich Taylor

Mary Jo Wilhelm

The following fifteen Democrats voted with all 24 Republicans to confirm Palmer:

Chaz Allen

Tony Bisignano

Joe Bolkcom

Tom Courtney

Jeff Danielson

Dick Dearden

Bill Dotzler

Bob Dvorsky

Mike Gronstal

Wally Horn

Kevin Kinney

Liz Mathis

Matt McCoy

Amanda Ragan

Joe Seng

As mentioned above, senators did not reject any Branstad nominee during this year’s session. However, one person clearly lacked enough support to be confirmed: Iowa Law Enforcement Academy Director Arlen Ciechanowski. During the past two years, several disturbing accounts emerged pointing to a hostile work environment at the academy.

Academy administrators deny that Nancy Brady’s firing in January [2013] was a retaliatory move. But Brady, who had worked 14 years as an instructor for dispatchers, contends that she was fired after being unfairly accused of threatening the academy director, the culmination of punitive actions that started after she filed a complaint against assistant director Michael Quinn. […]

[Brady] complained in July 2012 to the Department of Administrative Services after female students told her they were upset that Quinn asked them during a sex abuse investigation class whether “penis size matters.” An investigation resulted in Quinn facing unspecified disciplinary action. […]

Brady alleges that Quinn summoned her to his office weeks later for a surprise performance review, where he said he would “slit your throat” if she spoke with another employee about non-work matters. Brady provided the AP an audio recording in which a male voice – identified as Quinn by Brady – calmly makes the comment to Brady.

The Law Enforcement Academy director didn’t handle the situation well.

Ciechanowski reprimanded Quinn but allowed him to continue in his position, which included serving as the academy’s Violence Against Women Act coordinator teaching cadets about interviewing victims. Quinn was only stripped of that role later after the Iowa Attorney General’s Office learned of his behavior. Meanwhile, Brady was fired from the academy after she was accused of threatening Ciechanowski, which she denies.

Ciechanowski also acknowledged that he hired an instructor, Curtis Pote, over 54 other candidates despite knowledge that Pote had been demoted from his previous job for sexually harassing a female cadet.

Quinn announced plans to retire in April 2014, but last year state lawmakers included language in a budget bill

that changed Quinn’s job from a merit-protected position to an at-will employee who could be fired for any reason without appeal rights.

Democratic Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids said the goal of the change was to make it easier for the Branstad administration to fire Quinn, 71, who had been at the academy since 2000, if they chose to do so.

Ciechanowski fired Quinn last June, weeks before the assistant director’s planned retirement date. That wasn’t the end of trouble at the academy, though. Last October, “A 30-year Iowa Law Enforcement Academy instructor […] retired during a state investigation into his workplace conduct […].” UPDATE: In fairness, I should have mentioned that the police trainer Mark Edmund denied his questionable conduct factored into his decision to leave the academy. Ryan Foley reported at the time,

Reached Thursday by The Associated Press, Edmund said that it was “none of your business” why he had been on leave and wouldn’t speak about the investigation. Instead, he repeatedly said that he decided to retire because he recently bought puppies and wanted to raise them. One of them, he noted, tried to knock the phone out of his hand during the call.

“I bought two golden retriever puppies and decided I’d rather spend my time with them right now,” he said.

I give Edmund points for creativity, but I’ve heard more convincing cover stories for a retirement.

For reasons I don’t understand, Branstad renominated Ciechanowski this year. The Iowa Senate Oversight Committee sent Ciechanowski’s nomination to the chamber with no recommendation. Committee Chair Janet Petersen commented at that time,

“I believe we need a strong leader up there who won’t tolerate sexual harassment [….] If we want our law enforcement to be professional we’ve got to start at the top.”

Last month, the governor went to bat for his nominee:

Governor Terry Branstad says the head of the Iowa Enforcement Academy is available to meet privately with any senator who has questions about how sexual harassment complaints have been handled in the agency.

“I believe that Arlen should be given the opportunity to respond to the accusations that have been made,” Branstad says.

Democratic State Senator Steve Sodders, who is also a Marshall County deputy sheriff, said last week,

“There are a lot of senators who think that [sexual harassment allegation] was mishandled and want sort of a complete change in culture,” Sodders says.

[…] Senator Sodders, who is a Marshall County deputy sheriff, says it’s time for new leadership at the academy.

“We don’t need a black eye with the Law Enforcement Academy or law enforcement. I mean, we’re kind of getting beat up around the country,” Sodder says. “And so anything that we can do to make sure people know that it is a professional organization and the cadets are being trained without harassment or any of these other things, that’s what we want to make sure we’re promoting.”

Sodders is a 1988 graduate of the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy and Sodders says Ciechanowski was one of his instructors.

Ouch.

On May 18, Ciechanowski accepted reality and informed Branstad in a letter that he will retire, effective June 30 (the end of the current fiscal year).

The Associated Press reported the next day,

Brady, who had lobbied senators to reject the appointment, said she was thrilled by Tuesday’s news.

“So many people reached out to me and said they were contacting their senators” to oppose Ciechanowski, she said.

“This is the work of people who are fed up with the mismanagement and unethical actions of the administration of the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy.”

Branstad still stands by his man. The governor’s office provided a copy of Ciechanowski’s retirement letter, along with this statement:

Gov. Branstad appreciates Mr. Ciechanowski’s forty-year career in public safety and wishes him the best in retirement.  With Mr. Ciehanowski’s retirement effective June 30, the governor will review and consider candidates to lead the ILEA. The governor will look for an individual who is committed to superior training for Iowa peace officers and is dedicated to maintaining the public’s safety.

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