April 18, 2014

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.

Democrats consider allowing absentee voting in 2016 Iowa Caucuses

Leaders of the Iowa Democratic Party are opening a discussion about how absentee voting might be allowed during the 2016 Iowa Caucuses.

“At least starting a process to consider whether it’s even feasible to expand some access,” Iowa Democratic Party chairman Scott Brennan said during an interview with Radio Iowa.

Under the current rules, you must be present at your precinct on Caucus night in order to vote in the event which serves as the kick-off for the presidential nominating season. Critics say that disenfranchises Iowa soldiers who are on active duty and older Iowans who don’t want to venture out on a cold winter evening, plus Iowans who cannot get time off work to attend the Caucuses.

“Everything’s on the table to talk about,” Brennan said. “If there’s a way to enhance access and do it in a manner that keeps the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses and still lets peoples’ voices be heard, that’s what we want to do.”

Brennan has asked Norman Sterzenbach, the party’s former executive director, to conduct a “listening tour” to talk to “hundreds, if not thousands” of people about how absentee voting might be incorporated in the Caucuses.

“A major tenant in the Democratic Party has always been expanding access to voting to more and more groups of people and make it easier for more people to participate in the process,” Sterzenbach said during an interview with Radio Iowa. “But, at the same time, the spirit of our Caucuses is that neighborhood gathering that takes place on Caucus night and so the main purpose here is to to figure out if we can find a way to bridge those two things.”

Absentee voting in the Iowa Caucuses has been discussed in the past, but abandoned for several reasons. For one, Iowa Democrats don’t just cast a straw poll ballot at the beginning of the Caucuses like Iowa Republicans do to determine which presidential candidate wins. Democrats calculate how many delegates the candidates win and delegates are chosen based on a formula. A candidate who lacks at least 15 percent in each precinct are declared “non-viable” and his or her supporters in that precinct must cast their lot with another candidate in a second round of voting.  If someone casts an absentee ballot, they would not be present for that second round of voting.

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.

Iowa lawmaker cites land dispute between U.S. gov’t & Nevada rancher (AUDIO)

A state legislator from southern Iowa took to the floor of the Iowa House to praise “courageous cowboys” in the state of Nevada who armed themselves to protest a government action against a local rancher.  State Representative Larry Sheets, a Republican from Moulton, spoke for nearly six minutes Wednesday afternoon.

“The government must be careful not to appear to be out of control and must follow the law or there will be violence like in the case of the Oklahoma City horror,” Sheets said.

A 21-year-long dispute between the federal Bureau of Land Management and a rancher escalated earlier this month, with federal agents rounding up nearly 400 head of cattle officials said were illegally grazing in the Nevada desert.  The cattle were abruptly released Saturday after protesters, some on horseback and some with guns, lined up along the Nevada-Arizona border to back the rancher.

“This represents a huge victory in the fight against unbridled government,” Sheet said. “American cowboys drew their line in the sand…In the battle of cowboys and bureaucrats, the cowboys won.”

AUDIO of Sheets’ speech, 5:51

Federal officials say rancher Cliven Bundy has failed to pay more than one-million dollars in fees for letting his cattle graze on public land since 1993. Bundy counters that he owes only 300-thousand dollars and he wants to pay it to his county or state rather than the federal government, plus Bundy argues his ancestors began running livestock on that land in the 1880s, before the U.S. Bureau of Land Management was formed, so the agency shouldn’t have jurisdiction in the area.




State may have to repay feds for co-mingled cash in confidential settlements

Legislative Oversight Comm 4-16-14An official from the state agency under fire for confidential settlements that included “hush money” for laid off workers says the agency’s new system for managing state government construction projects has saved nearly 10-million dollars over the past 32 months.

Lon Anderson, the chief deputy director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, makes that calculation, in part, by estimating 15 percent savings in construction because general contractors are no longer allowed to manage state government projects. Construction is monitored by three state employees and six different private companies instead.

“This reorg was really about…effective construction management and savings for the taxpayers,” Anderson said during testimony today before the Legislature’s Oversight Committee.

Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, sees flaws in the overall savings estimate.

“The numbers that we were going through today were all numbers that had no sense of context,” McCoy told reporters.

Another agency manager also confirmed some of the settlement money paid to the laid-off workers may have come from the federal government. Doug Woodley said that’s because other state agencies, which operate with both state and federal funds, are required to pay an annual management fee to the Department of Administrative Services and the agency doesn’t track the source of those payments. Democrats say that’s a problem and the state could be forced to repay any federal funds that might have been used.





Branstad releases his 2013 income tax returns, plus a letter from his doctor

Branstad tax returnsRepublican Governor Terry Branstad has released the state and federal tax returns he and his wife have filed, revealing the couple reported taxable income of almost $235,000.

Branstad’s salary as governor is just over $127,000 and he got about $55,000 from his state pension for his 30 years of service as a state legislator, as lieutenant governor and for his first four terms as governor. Branstad and his wife, Chris, own 13 rural post office buildings and collected $64,000 in rent last year, plus the Branstads reported income from investments and from an IRA willed to Branstad by an uncle who died recently.

The couple donated just over $40,000 to charity in 2013. That’s 17.2 percent of their total income. Reporters were allowed to read through Branstad’s tax returns this morning, as well as  read a short letter Branstad’s doctor wrote after the governor’s last physical in late February. The doctor said he found the 67-year-old Branstad “to be in good health” and the doctor said he had “no concerns” regarding Branstad’s “health and capacity to work.”

Jack Hatch, the only Democrat running for governor, released his 2013 tax returns as well as a letter from his doctor yesterday. Hatch reported he and his wife — who are property developers — had about $469,000 in income last year. Jack and Sonja Hatch paid over $88,000 in federal income taxes and almost $29,000 in state income taxes.  Terry and Chris Branstad paid $28,000 in federal taxes and $6200 in state taxes.