Four workers fired 31 months ago from their jobs in state government told senators today their dismissals were not handled according to protocol and the agency’s new bosses brought in replacements who came from the “good old boy’s network.” Senator Matt McCoy, a Democrat from Des Moines, said it appears there are too many “cozy relationships” now inside the Department of Administrative Services.
“September 1, 2011 represented the ‘September Massacre of the DAS’ and anyone who had any institutional knowledge was driven out of the department,” McCoy said.
Two of the four workers who testified before the Senate Oversight Committee were paid extra to stay quiet about their dismissals, prompting Republican Senator Sandy Greiner of Washington to ask fired worker Carol Frank this question: “Do have any intention of returning the money?”
Frank replied: “If they want it back, I’ll give it to them in pennies.” Some senators and others in the audience laughed, before Frank added: “They can come pick it up at Lake Panorama, where I live.”
A few minutes later, Senator McCoy argued the confidentiality agreements are “null and void” because they’ve become public records.
“We have invited you here today to hear your story and try to blow some of this stink off this bad arrangement,” McCoy said. “Anybody that would suggest to you that you somehow violated your agreement by being here today — they’re going to have to come between me and you to get to you.”
Three of the workers had already agreed to mediated settlements with the state when they were offered additional money to keep the agreements secret. One of the workers — Dean Ibsen — refused the money.
“I said, ‘No,'” Ibsen says. “And I didn’t find out how much money they were offering.”
Department of Administrative Services officials say they’re saving $730,000 a year because of their agency reorganization plan which included these lay-offs, but the savings comes from reduced construction costs, not salary savings. The four workers who testified said their entire team of seven project managers oversaw at least $150 million worth of government contracts, including construction of the new state prison in Fort Madison. They were all laid off at 8 a.m. on a Thursday, asked to leave immediately and did not train their replacements. Tony Schmitz was overseeing eight construction and maintenance projects, including renovations of Terrace Hill, when he was fired.
“I could not believe how they did it,” Schmitz told senators. “I mean, no business is going to do something like that.”
Ken Thornton, another project manager in the Department of Administrative Services who was fired, literally saw the handwriting on the wall several weeks earlier as his boss had an agency flow chart on the wall with the names of employees, and Thornton’s name was crossed out.
“I’ve never been laid off in my life,” Thornton told senators. “…I’m not saying there’s anything bad about people getting laid off. You know, sometimes businesses change and things happen, but this, I don’t believe, was a regular lay-off or reorganization. I believe it had political motivations.”
Thornton suspects he may have been targeted because he’d flagged substandard work a construction company had done on a state building — and Mike Carroll, the agency’s new director, had worked at that company before Governor Terry Branstad appointed him to head the Department of Administrative Services. Thornton also revealed he had been reprimanded for telling a state board in a public meeting that there may be safety concerns about one of the aging underground tunnels that stretches between two state office buildings.
House Republicans refused to take part in today’s meeting with the fired workers, saying it’s time to focus on getting answers from the agency’s managers instead. The agency’s director and a couple of other Department of Administrative Services officials are scheduled to testify tomorrow before a meeting of the Legislature’s Oversight Committee, with members of the House and Senate present.
The Department of Administrative Services issued a written statement Wednesday afternoon after the Senate committee met, saying the department’s director “knows how to deliver and manage construction projects in order to provide the best possible project at the lowest cost to the taxpayers. ” The statement also revealed the agency has contracted with six different private firms to oversee state construction projects, in addition to the three workers hired to replace the seven project managers who were fired.