- Associated Press - Monday, April 14, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Two top managers at the Iowa Department of Administrative Services answered lawmakers’ questions during a nearly two-hour hearing Monday but did not clarify the big question: Who authorized settlement agreements with former state employees in which money was paid for secrecy?

Doug Woodley, general services enterprise chief operating officer for Administrative Services, and Paul Carlson, the agency’s chief resource maximization officer, were mostly cooperative with Senate and House members. At several points, though, the two managers indicated they couldn’t remember individuals involved in key meetings and promised to clarify answers by following up with documents centered on how much money the state saved in a 2011 reorganization ordered by Gov. Terry Branstad.

That reorganization led to numerous layoffs in state government.

Records show more than 320 state workers have entered settlement agreements since Branstad returned as governor in 2011. More than two dozen were asked to sign confidentiality agreements, with the total paid out exceeding $500,000.

Carlson said he wasn’t aware there was specific money allocated to ask former workers to keep quiet about their settlements. He said he was only asked to store away settlement agreements and not to review them for content.

After his former boss, Administrative Services Director Mike Carroll, testified April 3 there were no such offers made to laid off workers, documents surfaced that clearly indicated there had been offers. Branstad fired Carroll.

Senate Oversight Committee member Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said he still wants to get at who authorized the agreements and the source of the money to pay them.

“Where did the half-million dollars come from?” he said. “I’m saying if there’s a half-million dollars floating around here in the state budget, the question is was federal money involved? Was money involved not appropriated for that purpose?”

Administrative Services spokesman Caleb Hunter said in an interview that the money came from fees the department charged other state agencies and is placed in its operations account. It was not appropriated by the Legislature and did not come from federal funding, he said.

Committee Chairwoman Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said she also wants to get documents that prove the government saved money through the restructuring process.

Woodley said the state has saved tens of millions of dollars on construction projects and the quality of buildings is better, which will mean more cost savings in the long term.

Woodley and Carlson were asked to return Tuesday morning for more questions.

Earlier Monday, Gov. Branstad told lawmakers they should be focusing on the state budget and policy bills including an anti-bullying measure instead of expanding investigations into his administration.

“This sounds like partisan politics at its worst,” Branstad said during his weekly Monday morning news conference. “We are trying to do everything we can to cooperate and make sure that the public gets the information they need.”

House Democratic leaders held their own press conference two hours later to announce they’ve introduced a resolution that empowers the House Government Oversight Committee to subpoena witnesses and hold witnesses in contempt if they refuse to answer. It also allows the committee to hire an independent legal counsel to make recommendations for legislative action or prosecution if it’s determined something illegal may have occurred.

The proposal directs the House committee to expand its investigation into secret settlement payments, the closing of the Iowa Juvenile Home, a government do-not-hire list of former employees and alleged problems at Iowa Workforce Development.

“Taxpayers’ money was spent illegally to do confidential settlements,” said Rep. Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque, a member of the oversight committee. “If he wants to call this politics, that’s cheap. Let him come clean. Let him give the answers and let everyone in the executive branch come clean with what they know.”

House leaders have repeatedly said Democrats are making the accusations against Branstad to help Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, in his campaign to challenge Branstad, a Republican seeking re-election.

Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Danny Carroll slammed Senate Democrats for the relentless pursuit of information from Branstad’s office and other state agencies through open records requests. He said he filed his own records request Monday seeking documents from Petersen, McCoy and Hatch “in the spirit of openness and transparency.” His request was denied later in the day.

Senate Secretary Michael Marshall in his response to Carroll said the Iowa Constitution allows the Legislature to determine its own rules and “the documents requested have not customarily been deemed public documents by the Senate, given that their release would almost certainly have a detrimental chilling effect on citizens’ constitutional rights and willingness to petition their elected officials.”

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Follow David Pitt on Twitter at https://twitter.com/davepitt .

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