April 23, 2014

New whistleblower protections for state workers under discussion in Iowa Senate

Key Democrats in the Iowa Senate are pressing forward with a bill that would forbid confidential settlements with laid off state workers, putting Republican Governor Terry Branstad’s recent executive order in state law. The bill also seeks to expand protections for whistleblowers in state government. Bert Dalmer of the state ombudsman’s office works on whistleblower cases and he testified about that work during a Senate Oversight Committee hearing on Tuesday.

“There are really two aspects to every whistleblower complaint. The first one is the blowing of the whistle itself. The second half of that complaint would be any adverse action taken against the whistleblower,” Dalmer said. “We have found, in practice, since we got our new authority to investigate some whistleblower claims that we’re extremely limited in the number of employees we can actually assist.”

Dalmer estimated about 10 percent of the state workforce can appeal for his agency’s help if they’ve blown the whistle on some problem and someone retaliates, plus there are other hurdles.

“You have to blow the whistle about a certain type of thing,” Dalmer said. “You have to blow the whistle to a certain type of person. You have to come to us within 30 days. You have to have suffered the adverse action.”

That means a threatened demotion isn’t enough — the worker has to have been demoted. Under current state law, a protected whistleblower must notify a “public official” and the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that means the head of a state agency, a legislator, the governor or someone in law enforcement. That’s a major hurdle, according to Dalmer’s boss, State Ombudsman Ruth Cooperrider.

“If you blow the whistle to like a middle-management supervisor and that person takes retaliatory action, you may not be covered because that person may not be a public official under the law,” Cooperrider told senators.

State Senator Janet Petersen said that shows the whistleblower protections in current state law “obviously” aren’t going far enough. Late Tuesday afternoon a three-member senate subcommittee reviewed a rough draft of a bill that included new whistleblower protections. The legislation will be considered again today by the Senate Oversight Committee.

Former Iowa Veterans Home commandant described as ‘intimidating’ and profane by former employee

A former employee of the Iowa Veterans Home has released the recording of her interview with a state investigator reviewing allegations about the home’s commandant.

“He was very intimidating and we felt very afraid to speak up and speak out and we weren’t sure who to trust and where to go,” Lisa Purvis, the home’s former marketing director, said during her February, 2012 conversation with a Department of Administrative Services employee.

Purvis was part of the home’s senior leadership team for three and a half years, serving as the home’s chief contact with legislators. Purvis accused former Commandant David Worley of “disturbing, unprofessional and unethical behavior.” Purvis told the investigator Worley made derogatory comments about the veterans who are residents of the home. Purvis also alleged Worley told top staff at the home there was no such thing as post traumatic stress disorder, using a form of the word “bull” to describe the condition.

“I didn’t see him make that comment in a public forum, of course, because there would be significant backlash to that, so he would often speak to how much he had done for other veterans with PTSD and how knowledgeable he was about the topic and how much money he had raised to support veterans with PTSD,” Purvis said. “So it was a very contradictory attitude and statements.”

Purvis told the investigator at one point Worley made an inappropriate sexual comment to her and she feared for her personal safety on another occasion.

“It escalated to the point where he had me come into his office, he shut the door and he just sat down at his desk and told me how many guns he had at home and how he knew how to use them and also the training that he had to use them,” Purvis said.

During the interview, Purvis described what she called “bizarre and incoherent” behavior from Worley in April of 2011 when the governor’s office announced Worley was resigning for health reasons. According to Purvis, an enraged Worley used the word “stupid” then tacked on a profane phrase to describe the governor’s staff. Worley’s departure was reversed a week later and he stayed for another year and a half before resigning last fall.  Last spring, Branstad described Worley as a “dedicated public servant” and he accused Worley’s critics of engaging in a “political witch hunt.”

Purvis released the recording to members of the Senate Oversight Committee late today and senate staff posted the audio on the internet, along with a letter Purvis sent to the Department of Administrative Services. Purvis told the investigator she had telephoned the agency before, to report Worley’s conduct, but her call had not been returned.

Earth Day protests at Drake University, statehouse

A Republican lawmaker from northwest Iowa marked “Earth Day” by calling for more, not less carbon emissions.  State Representative Dwayne Alons of Hull gave a speech on the floor of the Iowa House this afternoon.

“Carbon dioxide has been made out to be some kind of toxic gas, but the truth is it’s the gas of life,” Alons said. “We breathe it out. Plants breathe it in.”

Alons, a retired member of the Iowa Air National Guard, is a farmer who does not subscribe to what he calls the “religion” of “the green lobby” and its belief in global warming.

“Let’s burn more coal and other hydrocarbon fuels to make Earth Day even more greener next year,” Alons said.

About 20 people protested at Drake University on Earth Day, complaining about a speaker brought to campus by the oil industry. James Jones, President Obama’s former National Security Advisor, is a supporter of the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline that would transport crude oil from Canada to Texas.

“The world is separated by a lot of things, but one of the key separations is (this): ‘Do you have energy or do you not?’” Jones asked. “‘Are you going to be like Mr. Putin and use energy as a weapon or are you going to be like the Americans and use energy for the greater human good?’”

Jones said processing Canadian crude oil in Texas will be good for the U.S. economy because it will add jobs and help the U.S. become more energy self-sufficient. His visit to Drake University was sponsored by the Iowa Energy Forum, which is financed by the American Petroleum Institute. About 20 students and members of Citizens for Community Improvement staged a rally on campus to protest the pro-pipeline speech. Two Drake students who are from Nebraska said the pipeline project, if completed, “threatens their home state’s air and water, property values and quality of life.”

Branstad accused of sweeping allegations against former Vet’s Home chief “under the rug”

There’s still an open investigation of allegations the former commandant of the Iowa Veterans Home mistreated residents of the home, plus new questions are being raised about a previous investigation of allegations the home’s manager sexually harassed and threatened employees.

Jeff Panknen of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services conducted two investigations into complaints about former Iowa Veterans Home Commandant David Worley, but Panknen told legislators today he cannot disclose many details.

“I’d want to make sure I’m allowed to share that information before I shared that,” Panknen said during a nearly two-and-a-half hour long Senate Oversight Committee hearing.

Panknen’s boss told senators an executive summary of the investigation was turned over to the governor’s chief of staff and Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, said the public deserves to know whether the investigation concluded the complaints against Worley were valid and Worley should have been fired.

“Who knows what actions the governor took as a result of these two investigations?” McCoy asked. “Is it just the governor? I’m mean, is it the governor and God?”

McCoy recently listened to the recording of Panknen’s interview of a former Veterans Home employee who said the commandant made sexually explicit comments to her and intimidated staff.

“I think the allegations that were brought forward and obviously sent to the governor were never acted on and that’s what I’m alleging today because I have no evidence to the contrary,” McCoy said. “I think the governor swept it under the rug.”

Ruth Cooperrider, the state Ombudsman, told legislators her agency doesn’t have authority to investigate complaints from Veterans Home employees, but she and her staff are investigating complaints about Worley from the veterans who live in the facility.

“We are in the process of interviewing individuals,” Cooperrider said.

In addition, Cooperrider’s investigative team has reviewed the investigative reports about Worley that were turned in to the governor’s office, but the Department of Administrative Services had stipulations.

“Initially we got resistance,” Cooperrider said. “…Finally we were allowed access to look at the file, but it was not as freely as I wanted. They required us to sign a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ for us to review the file under their supervision and we could not remove any of the documents and we could not make copies either.”

Cooperrider, however, said confidentiality requirements prevent her from revealing what was in the files.

Former Governor Chet Culver hired David Worley to be commandant of the Iowa Veterans Home. When Terry Branstad became governor in 2011, Branstad kept Worley on and, when Worley left the job last fall, Branstad praised Worley’s work.

A spokesman for the governor issued a written statement this afternoon, saying the allegations about Worley are “protected” by law, because they are contained “within the individual’s personnel file.”

“It’s ironic Senate Democrats are discussing personnel matters on the same day they unveiled a bill which disregards the increased transparency measure passed by the Iowa House in a bipartisan fashion,” Branstad press secretary Jimmy Centers said. “If Senate Democrats were truly interested in increased transparency they wouldn’t be caving to union opposition to openness of personnel files.”

Legislator says deal still in the works for ending greyhound racing

A state legislator says a deal is in the works that would phase out the support now paid to greyhound tracks in Dubuque and Council Bluffs. Senator Jeff Danielson, a Democrat from Cedar Falls, is the chair the State Government Committee. Danielson says the bill would provide what he calls a “soft landing” for greyhound breeders. “If a breeder says  ‘look I’m done with it , I don’t want the fight any more, I’d like to move on’ , there’s a way for them to receive that payout, so that their book of business, they can adjust and move on to other things,” Danielson says.

Casinos say a 1994 rule that requires land-based casinos to keep greyhound tracks, has forced them to pay 13-million dollars each year to subsidize the sport despite lagging attendance. Danielson says the industry has provided a lot of economic development in rural Iowa. “I think it’s unfair to call this a subsidy that must end because we don’t like subsidies,” Danielson says. “The reality is we subsidize business and industries all over Iowa, throughout our tax code.”

He says part of the deal since the beginning has been for the Iowa Greyhound Association to manage a racetrack itself.  Danielson says he knows the impact losing a greyhound track can have on a community. The Waterloo Greyhound Park which shut down in 1996 is in his district. “It’s been empty for nearly 20 years, it sits on one of the highest traffic properties in the community right off of  Highway 20. There’s no reason it should be empty — but because of a lot of the legal arrangements that had been tied up because of  the dog track and casino –  there it sits,” Danielson says. He says he doesn’t want to see the same thing happen in Dubuque and Council Bluffs with the closing of the dog tracks there.

Danielson is hoping to get the bill passed before the end of the session. He made his comments on the Iowa Public Radio program “River to River.”

State auditor reviewing controversial confidential settlements with laid-off state workers

The Republican state auditor is “looking into” confidential settlements with laid off state workers that included so-called “hush money” payments, but State Auditor Mary Mosiman says state law prevents her from discussing the details of any audits or special investigations she and her staff may be pursuing.

“There’s pending legislation and until the legislators finalize that, we will not be disclosing too much of where we’re going in our plans for the things that have already taken place,” Mosiman says.

Senate Democrats have voted to ask the auditor to conduct an investigation of the 25 settlements that have been made with laid off state workers over the past three years — settlements which included confidentiality clauses and, in some cases, extra money for the secrecy agreement.  State Senator Jack Hatch, the only Democrat running for governor this year, has called for an independent audit, but Hatch says he welcomes the auditor’s apparent investigation.

“We need to follow the money,” Hatch says.

Hatch hopes the auditor reviews the records of all 12 agencies where confidential settlements were generated.  Legislators in the House and Senate are discussing a proposal that would give the state auditor authority to charge a fee to the Department of Administrative Services for any investigation of the confidential settlements.

Branstad says there’s a ‘double standard’ over email from executive branch, legislature

Republican Governor Terry Branstad says it is “hypocritical” for three Democrats in the Iowa Senate to resist releasing their own email about their investigation of his administration.

“We have been totally open and transparent. We have cooperated with them in every way,” Branstad says. “I’d like to see them, also, open their emails. I think it’s hypocritical for them to demand all this information from the executive branch and then hide behind legislative privilege.”

The Iowa Republican Party’s chairman issued a request last week, saying Senate Democrats’ investigation into a “hush money” scandal threatens to “turn into a farce” if three key Senate Democrats fail to reveal their own email about the investigation.  Matt McCoy of Des Moines is one of the three Democratic senators the GOP’s chairman targeted and McCoy says releasing his email would expose whistleblowers in state government who’ve requested anonymity.

“The legislature has to be that third party to be able to hear grievances from employees and be a safe place where employees can report on agencies that they think are acting inappropriately,” McCoy says.

Branstad says that’s a “double standard.”

“The legislature, this particular committee has spent a lot of time attacking us, but they’re refusing to make their emails public to see if there’s political coordination,” Branstad says. “I think the public has a right to know that stuff.”

McCoy says the legislature is the “last line of defense” against fraud and abuse in the executive branch.

“I do have identities of employees that I definitely want to protect,” McCoy says.

McCoy says he’s heard from former employees as well who had no idea they had been put on the “black list” of workers not to be rehired by state government, including a woman who took maternity leave from her state job, then decided to stay home to raise her child rather than return to work.