April 24, 2014

Senate panel votes to ban confidential settlements in all three branches of state gov’t

The three Democrats on the Senate Oversight Committee have approved a bill that would offer new protection for whistleblowers in state government. It also would impose new rules for the so-called “blacklisting” of former state workers and expand the governor’s executive order barring confidential settlements with laid off workers to include the legislative and judicial branches of state government.

“I believe that the legislation before us does a good of trying to tackle some of the issues or many of the issues that have come before our committee,” Senator Janet Petersen, a Democrat from Des Moines, said during Wednesday afternoon’s committee meeting.

Senator Julian Garrett of Indianola, one of two Republicans on the senate committee, said the bill has a major flaw.

“It continues to allow the state to conceal the real reasons for a person’s termination,” Garrett said.

Senator Sandy Greiner of Washington, the other Republican on the panel, agreed.

“I’m gravely concerned about the fact that you’re not putting anything in the bill about exposing why state employees have been released,” Greiner said.

The Republican-led House has endorsed the idea of opening personnel records so the public can find out why state workers have been dismissed. Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, said that was left out of the Senate Democrats’ bill because it would expose the state to defamation lawsuits.

“It’s really difficult for an employer, even the state, to state that an employee was fired with cause for, you know, theft because unless there was a clear pursuit of due process and everything was handled perfectly, one of these scheister attorneys will come in and sue you…even in a situation like that,” McCoy said.

McCoy, who works in human resources in the private sector, said that’s why most private companies will only reveal a former employee’s dates of employment and their job title when someone calls to ask about that employee.

Governor Terry Branstad, a Republican who has a law degree, has asked legislators to open state personnel records so Iowans can learn why state employees were fired. Senate Republican Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock accuses Democrats of bowing to the wishes of state employee unions which oppose the idea.

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.

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.

Unemployment rate inches up to 4.4% in March

The state unemployment rate moved up again in March. “We had just a tenth of a percent increase in our unemployment rate, and that’s really primarily due to an increase in the state’s labor force,” Iowa Workforce Development spokesperson Kerry Koonce says. The 4.4-percent unemployment rate in March is still below the 4.8-percent rate for March of last year.

Koonce says the workforce has been growing “excessively” over the last couple of months. “Individuals who maybe stopped looking for work, because they didn’t think it was available, have started again,” Koonce says. The total number of Iowans working is now 1,615,200. “That’s reached a record number — which is very good– that really shows the economy is growing,” Koonce says. “That’s 27,000 higher than it was this time last year.”

Koonce says there were some job losses. She says the most loses were in manufacturing, but she says the forecasts show that durable goods manufacturing jobs should pick up in the coming weeks and level out the loses. The professional goods and services area also lost jobs, which Koonce says is an area that tends to go up and down.

Overall manufacturing jobs are up 800 compared to last year. Koonce says construction employment should be picking up soon as the weather improves.

Senator airs concerns about what he calls “spying” on unemployed Iowans

A state senator says he is “deeply troubled” by a state agency’s decision to hire a Google subsidiary to “spy” on Iowans who are getting unemployment benefits. Senator Bill Dotzler, a Democrat from Waterloo, says the agency is using a half a million dollar federal grant to pay for the company’s services.

“Iowa Workforce Development, instead of hiring individuals to go after $15 million worth of fraudulent payments, has contracted with a Google subsidiary — it’s called Pondera Technology Platforms — to spy on unemployed workers who are receiving unemployment benefits,” Dotzler says.

The agency says the company will sort through data to see if someone receiving jobless benefits has committed identity theft by, for example, using someone else’s Social Security number. Dotzler argues the on-line tracking may go too far and legislators should have been involved in making this kind of a decision.

“Should state government move down that path?” Dotzler asks. “Is that the kind of government that we are heading towards, where we are spying on the citizens of our country to find out about their personal lives and what they’re doing, all under the guise of trying to keep somebody from committing fraud?”

The director of the Iowa Workforce Development agency is quoted in a Pondera news release, saying Pondera provides her agency with a new “tool set to detect and prevent fraud.” She said there’s been a “lack of investment” in the agency’s “technical capabilities” over the past decade and Pondera can help prevent errors and save taxpayer dollars.

Board chair felt “gun to my head” to hire Branstad pick; governor denies the charge

The chairman of a state board that decides disputes between government employees and their managers says Governor Terry Branstad’s chief of staff forced the board to hire a judge who had been hand-picked by Branstad’s staff, a charge Branstad denies. Public Employment Relations Board chairman James Riordan has been on the board for the past 14 years, serving under Governors Tom Vilsack, Chet Culver and now Terry Branstad.

“Jeff Boeyink, his chief of staff…he was the message carrier, basically,” Riordan said today. “…He made it clear to us that if we weren’t willing to go along with this idea there were going to be serious consequences related to the budget.”

Riordan, a Democrat who is a former state senator, testified before the Senate Government Oversight Committee today, saying he felt his agency’s budget and his own $96,000 a year salary were in jeopardy if Branstad’s pick wasn’t hired as an administrative law judge.

“I felt that there was a gun to my head, you know: ‘Do this or you’re going to have big consequences,’” Riordan told legislators.

Governor Branstad flatly denies Riordan’s allegations.

“I think it’s very disappointing that somebody who didn’t get reappointed to the (Public Employment Relations Board) would make these kind of false accusations,” Branstad told reporters this afternoon.

Branstad said Robert Wilson is “extremely qualified” for the job of administrative law judge.

“I heard after the fact that he was appointed,” Branstad told reporters. “I had appointed him a number of years ago as a district court judge and then he had resigned from that position and gone to work for a doctor over in Iowa City.”

The Senate Government Oversight Committee also heard testimony today from the top human resources manager in state government. She explained how former state employees who have discovered they’re on a “do not rehire” list can appeal to get their names removed. She also said about two percent of the workers in the executive branch of state government who had been classified as “merit employees” have been reclassified as “at will” employees, meaning they can be fired at any time.

Lawmakers want to know more about black-listed ex-state workers

A key House Republican is asking the governor for more information about confidential settlements and why nearly a thousand former state workers are on a “do not hire” list. Senate Democrats, meanwhile, plan to hold a hearing today to ask the human resources manager for a state agency those same questions.

Republicans have been arguing there is no “blacklist” of state workers who should not be rehired, merely a “code” on their personnel file that “excludes” them from future state work. Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, scoffs at that.

“A database is a list — is a list, is a list, is a list,” McCoy told reporters Wednesday.

Republicans like Senator Sandy Greiner of Washington, Iowa, want to know why those employees were fired and she’s asked for a summary.

“With no names attached to it, no addresses attached, no Social Security numbers attached, but a summary of the list of reasons that people were coded to no longer be hired by the state,” Greiner said during Wednesday’s House-Senate Oversight Committee meeting.

Republicans are pushing for legislation that would make the reasons behind state employee dismissals a public record and a bill to do that passed the Republican-led House.  Democrats in the Senate say they’re drafting a bill that addresses a variety of issues that have been raised about state hiring and firing practices. Senator Janet Petersen, a Democrat from Des Moines, said it will include protections for whistleblowers, too.

“We are planning to take action,” she said during Wednesday’s meeting.

The Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee has delivered a list of 16 questions he wants answered about the confidential settlements with at least two dozen laid off state workers as well as the reasons why “each” of the 975 former state employees declared “ineligible for rehire” was given that status.