Politically motivated Iowa fraud case points to Polk County prosecutor's failure

A former administrative law judge who testified about political interference at Iowa Workforce Development is facing a felony fraud charge after staff in the Polk County Attorney’s office failed to do their homework.

Ryan Foley reported Thursday for the Associated Press that former Administrative Law Judge Susan Ackerman is charged with making fraudulent submissions, having “falsely certified that her married daughter was single so that she could receive state health insurance in 2013 and 2014.” When the Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board reviewed an Iowa Workforce Development complaint citing the same conduct a year and a half ago, the board determined “that Ackerman didn’t commit an ethical violation and declined to take action against her law license,” Foley noted.

So why is she facing criminal prosecution now? Because no one in the Polk County Attorney’s office researched this case before filing charges.

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Weekend open thread: Gratitude and accountability edition

Happy new year, Bleeding Heartland readers! Here’s an open thread: all topics welcome.

I am grateful to everyone who contributed guest posts during 2015: Dave Swenson, Jon Muller, fladem, 2laneIA, ahawby, Julie Stauch, Susan Staed, Mike Owen, natewithglasses, sarased, frankly, Jane Kersch, aleand67, Matt Hauge, ModerateIADem, Leland Searles, Eileen Miller, Tracy Leone, Pari Kasotia, Roger Pedactor, Stacey Walker, Mike Draper, cocinero, AbramsMom, mrtyryn, desmoinesiowa15, moderatepachy, Joe Stutler, Zach Wahls, and State Representative Chuck Isenhart.

Guest authors can write about any political topic of state, local, or national importance. Pieces can be short or long, funny or serious. You do not need to contact me ahead of time with your story idea. Just register for a user account, log in, write a post, edit as needed, and hit publish when you are ready. The piece will be “pending” until I approve it for publication, to prevent spammers from using the site to sell their wares.

I also want to thank everyone who participates here by commenting on posts. If you’ve never done so, feel free to register for a user account and share your views. If you used to comment occasionally but have not done so since this blog relaunched on a different software platform in October, you will need to reset your password. E-mail me with any problems registering for an account, logging in, or changing a password; my address is near the lower right-hand corner of this page.

I wish everyone success in sticking to your new year’s resolutions. Keep in mind that new habits typically take a few months to establish. I’m still working on my list of Iowa politics predictions for 2016, but now seems like the right time to hold myself accountable for last year’s effort. Follow me after the jump to see how I did.

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Matt Hinch stepping down as Branstad's chief of staff

After nearly two years on the job, Matt Hinch is resigning as Governor Terry Branstad’s chief of staff, effective August 7. The full press release from the governor’s office is after the jump.

Hinch is leaving for an unspecified “private sector” opportunity. I expect to hear soon that he is joining one of the Republican presidential campaigns. Hinch’s previous work included a stint as campaign manager for then-U.S. Representative Tom Latham. He also served as chief of staff for Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen and handled government relations for the Greater Des Moines Partnership, an influential business-oriented group.

Hinch kept a low profile as the governor’s chief of staff, rarely making the news. Last year, he headed a quick (and I mean very quick) review of secret settlements with former state employees, which sidestepped allegations of political cronyism that affected the careers of some merit-based state workers. Former Iowa Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert has asserted that Hinch and other senior Branstad administration officials thwarted her efforts to make her department’s chief administrative law judge position a merit-based job, as the U.S. Department of Labor has demanded.

UPDATE: Another plausible theory: Hinch may go to work for the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water, an astroturf group the Iowa Farm Bureau created to lobby against any regulations to improve water quality.

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New Iowa Workforce Development Director cleaning up Teresa Wahlert's mess

Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend is implementing key recommendations from the U.S. Department of Labor to resolve concerns about the previous agency director’s actions. Townsend’s actions provide a refreshing contrast to Teresa Wahlert’s management of Iowa Workforce Development, which sparked recurring controversy and not one, not two, but three lawsuits.

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U.S. Department of Labor wants Branstad administration to clean up Teresa Wahlert's mess

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration has given Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend a list of tasks to “strengthen Iowa’s compliance with Federal law” and address various concerns about the actions of Teresa Wahlert, Townsend’s predecessor.

It’s another sign that while Wahlert may not be Governor Terry Branstad’s worst appointee during his current administration, she’s a solid contender.

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A dubious distinction for Teresa Wahlert

Even after retiring as Iowa Workforce Development director (effective this past Sunday), Teresa Wahlert continues to leave her mark on state government. Yesterday Administrative Law Judge Susan Ackerman filed a lawsuit against the State of Iowa, Wahlert, and two judges Wahlert promoted. After the jump I’ve enclosed excerpts from David Pitt’s report for the Associated Press. Ackerman claims Wahlert “interfered with the bureau’s work, attempting to turn a fair and impartial administration of unemployment benefits into a process that is biased in favor of employers over employees.”

That makes not one, not two, but three pending lawsuits against the State of Iowa in which Wahlert is a central figure. Former Workers Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey named Wahlert as a co-defendant in his 2012 lawsuit against the state, alleging (among other things) that she “ostracized” him after he resisted pressure to resign before the end of his fixed term. Last year Joseph Walsh, the former Chief Administrative Law Judge for Iowa Workforce Development, sued the state and Wahlert, claiming that she had “interfere[d] with the administrative judicial process in order to favor employers,” attempted “to illegally strip [Walsh] of his merit protection,” and eventually retaliated by removing him in “a political reorganization disguised as a budget layoff.”

In addition, Wahlert was on the wrong end of a November 2014 ruling by an arbitrator, who determined that the Iowa Workforce Development director had “overstepped her bounds when she promoted a judge who had been demoted after complaints that she created a hostile work environment.”

Just last week, unemployment appeals Judge Marlon Mormann announced his early retirement, telling the Associated Press that he was “ready to be done with it” after his worst year in a 24-year career in state government. Judge Mormann and Judge Ackerman were both witnesses at Iowa Senate Oversight Committee hearings last August on Branstad administrative officials (led by Wahlert) “pressuring judges to rule against unemployed Iowans.”

Let’s not forget that Wahlert presided over the governor’s policy to close Iowa Workforce Development field offices in dozens of communities, which became an issue in a lawsuit that went all the way up to the Iowa Supreme Court.

I would guess that Wahlert’s tenure has set some kind of record for legal entanglements involving an agency director for the State of Iowa. Yet every step of the way, including the day his office announced Wahlert’s resignation, Branstad has heaped praise on her work. I’m convinced that the only reason she retired was everyone knew she’d never be confirmed to run Iowa Workforce Development again. Thank heaven for checks and balances.

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