Recent editorials published in Iowa newspapers

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The Des Moines Register. April 19, 2014.

An independent state probe is needed

The charges and counter-charges, first about one controversy, then another, and another, involving Gov. Terry Branstad’s stewardship of Iowa’s state government have dominated the headlines and coffee shop talk for several weeks. The Iowa Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee has held hearings, questioned witnesses, requested documents and talked about possible subpoenas as it delves into the issues.

But the committee’s work has become bogged down by charges of political opportunism. The allegations at the heart of these cases are much too important to Iowa’s reputation for good government to be brushed off.

Iowans are entitled to know what is, or isn’t, going on. But with adjournment of this year’s session of the Legislature expected this week or next, the state needs an independent, comprehensive investigation to thoroughly explore the various issues. Such an independent investigation could be performed by the state auditor’s office or the state ombudsman’s office.

Like all governors, Branstad is free to hire whomever he chooses for many state government jobs. A church official with no regulatory experience can head the state agency overseeing nursing homes if the governor wishes and if lawmakers confirm the choice.

But there must be limits. The vast majority of state employees spend their days focused on performing the work of government. That includes processing Medicaid claims, patrolling parks, investigating child abuse, issuing driver’s licenses, and implementing new laws. These workers should not have to worry about the personal and political agenda of whoever resides at Terrace Hill.

Allegations have swirled in recent weeks that the jobs of about 300 employees under Iowa’s civil service - called the merit system - have been reclassified as “at will.” That means supervisors could fire those “at will” workers at any time and for nearly any reason. Under the merit system, they could be fired only for cause.

Allegations about the secret financial settlements offered to terminated workers have gained media attention. State employees were paid additional money to keep quiet about the terms of their departures. What, exactly, did the higher-ups not want them to talk about? And why?

The Branstad administration has kept a “do not rehire” list of public employees who are barred from returning to state government. The Associated Press reported judges have ruled that the Department of Administrative Services did not have the authority to issue lifetime employment bans against fired workers. Yet, the department not only continued the practice, but it stopped informing departing workers they had been blacklisted.

One of the blacklisted workers was forced out after she complained about harassment of female employees and students by an Iowa Law Enforcement Academy official.

Last week, the chairman of the Iowa Public Employee Relations Board said the governor’s former chief of staff, Jeff Boeyink, and the governor’s legal counsel, Brenna Findley, threatened to cut the board’s budget if the three board members refused to hire a longtime friend of the Branstad administration for a vacant administrative law judge job.

This gives the appearance of trying to stack the deck on a board that was created to consider complaints from government workers.

“This is the first time that a governor’s office in the 40-year history of PERB has directly intervened in placing a person in this office,” said board Chairman Jim Riordan. The governor is attempting to “influence outcomes of what we would be deciding,” he said.

Though the governor denies anyone applied pressure on PERB, this is the second time in less than a month that his administration has been accused of interfering with the workings of the state’s administrative law judges.

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