Governor Kim Reynolds didn't want the public to learn why she forced out Jerry Foxhoven as director of the Iowa Department of Human Services. The vague official narrative about Foxhoven's unexpected departure remained intact for a month.
But the ground shifted last week. As further details emerge, the governor and her top staff will have more explaining to do.
"IT WAS A LOT OF FACTORS"
Reynolds didn't intend to reveal that she showed Foxhoven the door. The June 17 news release announcing the leadership change at DHS mostly focused on the interim director, burying the big news in the final sentence: "[Gerd] Clabaugh replaces Jerry Foxhoven, who resigned effective today."
Within hours, Foxhoven let it be known that he hadn't planned to leave his post. "At the request of the governor, I submitted my resignation,” he wrote.
The governor's team had no immediate answer to the obvious follow-up question. The next day, communications director Pat Garrett provided a classic example of what I call the non-responsive response.
Gov. Reynolds asked Foxhoven to resign because she wanted to go in a new direction at the Department of Human Services," governor's spokesman Pat Garrett said Tuesday. "She has spent the first part of this year assembling a new team, from top to bottom, to carry out her vision. More changes will be announced in the coming days and weeks ahead."
Reynolds didn't shed further light on the subject during a media availability on June 19. From the Des Moines Register write-up by Barbara Rodriguez:
"It was a lot of factors that went into that decision. Just a lot of factors," Reynolds told reporters at the Capitol. [...]
Another reporter asked Reynolds if there had been any concerns with how Foxhoven, who ran the agency for two years, interacted with his staff.
"As I said, there are a lot of factors that went into that decision. I'm not going to get into them," she responded. [...]
A third reporter asked the governor if Foxhoven's resignation was tied to performance, behavior or philosophical differences.
Reynolds repeated: "A lot of factors that went into that decision."
The 2017 collective bargaining law included a provision stating that "the documented reasons and rationale" for a resignation in lieu of termination, discharge, or demotion are a public record. But when reporters asked to see the "documented reasons and rationale" for Foxhoven's departure, the governor's office said they had no such records.
Foxhoven said nothing further in public for weeks, leaving journalists to hunt for clues.
"HE SAID HE WASN'T GIVEN A REASON FOR THE RESIGNATION REQUEST"
Ryan Foley of the Associated Press dug into one of the rumors circulating. After obtaining hundreds of pages of records, Foley reported on July 16 that the former director regularly referenced Tupac Shakur in communications to employees. In fact, Foxhoven had sent an agency-wide e-mail on June 14 encouraging staff to listen to one of the late rapper's songs.
The timing of Foxhoven’s mass email, which featured a large image of the rapper smiling, and his resignation has fueled speculation among employees that the two events are linked. But like the question of who fatally shot Shakur in Las Vegas in 1996, the reason for Foxhoven’s forced departure remains a mystery.
A spokesman for the governor wouldn’t confirm or deny that Foxhoven’s email figured into her surprise request for his resignation.
“As the governor has said, a lot of factors contributed to the resignation of Jerry Foxhoven and now Gov. Reynolds is looking forward to taking DHS in a new direction,” said spokesman Pat Garrett. [...]
Foxhoven said in a text message that he believed Reynolds had made the decision to “go in a different direction” before he sent the June 14 email. He said he wasn’t given a reason for the resignation request but that he doubted Shakur was a factor.
"IF THIS IS THE REASON, I'M REALLY DISAPPOINTED"
Numerous national news sites picked up the AP's scoop, and some implied Foxhoven was fired because of his love for Tupac. Foxhoven declined some interview requests but spoke to a few journalists, including NPR's Tim Mak. He reported on July 17 that Foxhoven didn't meet with Reynolds on the day he resigned.
Instead, the governor's chief of staff confiscated his cell phone and ID card on the spot and ordered him not to go back to his office. They did not cite a reason, and Foxhoven was not made aware of why he was let go after two years on the job. [...]
Although he knew one employee had complained about his frequent references to Tupac, Foxhoven says he hopes they were not the reason he was forced to resign.
He does wonder, however.
Foxhoven points out that Barry Manilow's birthday is one day after Tupac's, and wonders whether he have been dismissed if he had cited Manilow instead.
"I always try to assume the best of everybody, and I can't imagine that [the governor] would base her decision on the Tupac incident," he says. "If this is the reason, I'm really disappointed."
"OF COURSE, TUPAC WAS NOT ONE OF THEM"
Before the AP story hit the wire, Garrett had declined to rule out any connection between Foxhoven's love of Tupac and his abrupt departure. But the Foxhoven story was getting so much attention in Iowa and nationally that the governor's team took corrective action on July 18.
A Des Moines Register article by Barbara Rodriguez and Brianne Pfannenstiel quoted a new statement from Garrett: “As the governor has said, a lot of factors contributed to the resignation of Jerry Foxhoven. Of course, Tupac was not one of them."
The Register obtained records showing Reynolds' chief of staff Sara Craig Gongol was communicating with Foxhoven on June 13 (before the final Tupac missive) about scheduling the meeting where she dropped the hammer.
Meanwhile, Reynolds continued to stonewall reporters. From an Iowa Public Radio story by Katarina Sostaric:
Reynolds on Wednesday [July 17] again declined to provide details about why she asked Foxhoven to resign.
“My answer to this is going to be consistent. There were multiple factors that went into—I didn’t even know who Tupac was, so let’s just start with that,” Reynolds said. “Honestly, I had no idea who it even was. There were multiple factors that went into that decision, and we’re just going to leave it at that.”
Foxhoven didn't let them leave it at that.
"HER STAFF ASKED ME TO DO SOMETHING I THOUGHT WAS ILLEGAL"
After telling several reporters he didn't know why he was asked to resign, Foxhoven put forward a different hypothesis when speaking to Marc Hogan, a correspondent for the music publication Pitchfork, on July 18. Iowa Public Radio's Sostaric was first to report this explosive new allegation the following day.
“Her staff asked me to do something I thought was illegal, and so I wouldn’t do it,” Foxhoven said. “And so they said, ‘Okay well then you need to go.’”
He said he wanted a legal opinion on the matter, but he was asked to leave before he got it. Foxhoven declined to elaborate on what he was asked to do, but said he thinks “at some point” he will explain more.
Garrett sent identical statements to every news organization that asked the next obvious question. "We have no idea what former Director Foxhoven is referring to. He never raised a concern like that to us."
A spokesperson may genuinely be out of the loop on what transpired between Foxhoven and Gongol, but there is zero chance Reynolds and her chief of staff have "no idea" what Foxhoven is talking about.
Every investigative reporter in Iowa is probably chasing this story now. Eventually one of us will uncover evidence of what the governor wanted, or Foxhoven will clarify what he meant. News like this rarely remains secret forever.
If Reynolds was afraid to tell Iowans why she got rid of a major state agency leader, she shouldn't have dumped him.
P.S.--Anyone know whether the governor's office filled that "public relations manager" position they were advertising last month? If so, who was hired? Has the lucky person started working? Garrett has ignored Bleeding Heartland's inquiries.
UPDATE: Here we go. Iowa Senate Democrats released this statement on July 22.
Key Senators: Oversight Committee needs to investigate Foxhoven allegations, resignation
DES MOINES -- Democratic Senators Tony Bisignano and Claire Celsi, members of the Senate Government Oversight Committee, are calling for an interim public meeting of the five-member committee to discuss the departure of Jerry Foxhoven, former Director of the Iowa Department of Human Services.
“Governor Reynolds has said that she wanted her Administration to be one of the most honest and transparent in history,” said Sen. Tony Bisignano, Ranking Member of the Senate Oversight Committee. “We are calling on her to be transparent, release all relevant information, and to clear up the real reasons for Jerry Foxhoven’s resignation.”
A 2017 state law requires that the reason for firing (or demanding the resignation of an employee) is made public. Reynolds has declined to explain why Foxhoven was asked to resign and claimed that there has been a group working towards “a new direction” for the Department. When asked to produce documents proving that the group had been meeting, or to produce documents related to Foxhoven’s termination, Reynolds claims that none exists.
“The need for a public meeting is more important because of recent allegations by Foxhoven that he was asked by Governor Reynolds to do something illegal and he declined,” said Sen. Claire Celsi. “Iowans deserve to know what is going on and we want to get to the bottom of it. We’re asking Senate Republican leaders Charles Schneider and Jack Whitver to authorize Senator Amy Sinclair, chair of the Senate Oversight committee, to convene a meeting so we can question those involved and get some answers.”
Whitver and Schneider will likely cover for Reynolds. But they should tell Sinclair to start investigating this situation. State lawmakers need to hear directly from Foxhoven and Gongol about what happened on June 17 and during the conversations that preceded that meeting.
SECOND UPDATE: The Iowa House Democrats announced on July 22,
Des Moines, IA -- State Representative Ruth Ann Gaines, Ranking Member of the House Oversight Committee submitted a formal letter to the House Oversight Committee today to open an investigation into the forced resignation of former Department of Human Services Director Jerry Foxhoven and questions of illegal action.
“It's the constitutional duty of the Iowa Legislature to provide oversight and hold the executive branch accountable, especially in cases that involve billions of our tax dollars. For weeks, the Reynolds Administration has been hiding the reason for Jerry Foxhoven's forced resignation and now we may know why. The allegations that the Reynolds Administration asked Director Foxhoven to break the law are deeply troubling and must be taken seriously by lawmakers of both parties,” said Representative Gaines of Des Moines. “Iowans deserve to know the truth.”
As the Ranking Member of the House Oversight Committee, Representative Ruth Ann Gaines is calling for immediate hearings of the House Oversight Committee at the State Capitol to hear directly from former Director Foxhoven about the serious allegations he made against the Governor.
Below are the questions House Democrats are asking to provide transparency into the possible illegal action:
1) Who gave the “illegal” order and did Governor Reynolds authorize it?
2) What was the “illegal” order?
3) Has the “illegal” order been given to the interim director?
THIRD UPDATE: Foxhoven "gave an interview to a special agent of the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services," Michaela Ramm reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette on July 22. State Auditor Rob Sand also plans to interview the former DHS director, he told the Gazette.
“It’s pretty standard, whether it’s at a city or county, for us to investigate if someone said they were just fired due to a dispute on whether or not something was legal,” Sand said. “... Interviewing (Foxhoven) would be one part of getting an understanding of what is going on at the Governor’s Office.”
Meanwhile, Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver indicated in separate statements on July 22 that they see no need to hold Oversight Committee meetings on the circumstances surrounding Foxhoven's dismissal.
FOURTH UPDATE: Speaking to KCRG-TV on July 22, Reynolds stonewalled again.
"I'm just not going to get into that," Reynolds told KCRG-TV9. "I just don't think that's healthy and there is just no reason to do that."
When asked if the public has a right to know what she is considering when making those decisions, Reynolds said: "I don't think so". [...]
When pressed, Reynolds said her refusal to explain Foxhoven's resignation does not violate Iowa's Open Record Law. Reynolds said she asked Foxhoven to resign and he did, arguing that did not fit the law's definition of "resignation in lieu of termination".
How is it not "healthy" to explain the biggest decision you've made lately? As for "just no reason," Foxhoven's ouster is a matter of great public interest, and the agency's work affects hundreds of thousands of Iowans.
Hiding and dodging is a bad look.
Bleeding Heartland's coverage of this controversy continues here.