- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 19, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - A leading Democrat in the state Senate said Wednesday that the Iowa Workforce Development director is improperly pressuring judges who hear unemployment cases to rule against workers and in favor of employers.

Sen. Bill Dotzler, an assistant Senate majority leader from Waterloo, has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor asking the agency to investigate whether IWD Director Teresa Wahlert is violating federal laws requiring fair and impartial administration of unemployment benefits. In the letter he alleges that Wahlert has created a hostile work environment and is directly interfering with the independence of administrative law judges.

He said Wahlert, who is appointed by Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, took over supervising 14 unemployment case judges last year after firing the chief administrative law judge who oversaw them.

Dotzler said Wahlert has been demanding tallies of how often a judge decides in favor of employers and how often workers win unemployment appeals. He said she also has called for judges to create tip sheets to help employers win cases.

“Under federal law, unemployment compensation appeal hearings must be fair and impartial both in fact and appearance,” Dotzler said at a news conference at the Iowa Capitol. “Political interference or undue political influence, even the appearance, can potentially destabilize the appeal process and undermine the credibility of the state’s unemployment compensation system.”

He said he has talked with most of the judges who hear unemployment cases and they fear for their jobs.

Wahlert did not respond to a message seeking comment, but the department’s spokeswoman said the chief judge position was eliminated in July 2013 due to budget shortfalls.

“As a budget-saving move, the director has been providing staff, workflow and training supervision as she is allowed to do under federal regulations,” spokeswoman Kerry Koonce said. “The director does not participate in appeal hearings, review decisions or make recommendations regarding the outcomes of the appeal case.”

Koonce said the U.S. Department of Labor was “extremely pleased” with the department’s unemployment appeal process during a monitoring visit last week and will release a report that does not contain any negative findings.

Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said Dotzler’s criticism of the department is politically motivated.

Sen. Dotzler’s engagement in Washington, D.C.-style partisan attacks has no place in Iowa,” Centers said. “The taxpayers expect their elected leaders to work in a bipartisan fashion to pass meaningful legislation, not engage in Senate Democrats’ petty political theater.”

Dotzler said Iowa’s situation is similar to one in Maine, where last month federal officials concluded that unemployment hearing officers could have felt pressured by Gov. Paul LePage to favor employers but found no conclusive evidence of biased rulings.

The U.S. Department of Labor investigation into Maine’s unemployment system followed reports that the Republican governor pressured the hearing officers who decide unemployment benefit appeals to favor businesses more often.

LePage has denied allegations that he scolded hearing officers and said he was only urging officers “to follow the letter of the law.”

The federal inquiry found that LePage’s “direct intervention” and state Department of Labor officials’ involvement in the appeal process could “be interpreted as an attempt to intimate or direct hearing officers to view employers more sympathetically,” according to a letter to the state from Holly O’Brien, regional administrator for the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration.

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