- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 24, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Four state government administrators responsible for regulating hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities have filed a complaint that claims Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration illegally turned their jobs into political appointments last year.

The top two administrators in the Health Facilities Division and in the Investigations Division of the Department of Inspections and Appeals said in appeals documents filed with the Public Employment Relations Board that the administration stripped their long-standing status as merit employees and reclassified their positions as at-will jobs. An administrative law judge hearing is set to begin Thursday in the case.

It’s the latest example of how Branstad, when he returned as governor in 2011, began converting hundreds of state positions from merit jobs, in which employees can only be fired for job performance issues, to at-will jobs, in which workers can be fired for almost any reason. About 2 percent of workers in the executive branch have been reclassified, totaling more than 350 employees.

Critics of the practice say that the use of at-will jobs, which also can be filled without advertising, make it easier to hire political supporters.

The four administrators who are appealing were among eight whose status changed in July 2013. All eight appealed then, saying a state law specifically includes DIA division administrators in the merit system.

Four workers who held the title of bureau chief at the Health Facilities Division have recently been restored to merit status, said Wendy Dishman, the head of the investigations division in the Department of Inspections and Appeals. Dishman said that leaves her and three other top administrators to appeal for reinstatement of merit coverage.

Dishman, an attorney, is appealing on behalf of herself and the other three. She said they have agreed to decline discussing the case before the hearing.

The administrators oversee the state’s fraud investigations in public assistance programs including Medicaid and the inspections and licensing of more than 4,000 health care facilities in the state.

“The evidence showed that the legislature clearly intended that the DIA administrators and all other appointed DIA employees be covered by the merit system provisions so Iowans had laws and regulations impartially administered without regard to the patronage or ‘spoils’ system,” their appeal says.

A spokesman for Branstad declined to comment. A spokesman for the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, which oversees the state’s human resources operation, said he could not comment since an appeal is pending.

The Senate Government Oversight Committee has been investigating for months allegations of a hostile work environment, questionable hiring practices and other issues in Branstad’s administration.

Branstad has characterized much of the criticism as political gamesmanship designed to help Democratic Sen. Jack Hatch, who is running against the governor.

Committee Chairwoman Sen. Janet Petersen, a Democrat, said the DIA administrators’ case is another example of the administration asserting political control over people who should be free to make decisions without fear of being fired for political reasons.

“Once again, we’ve lost the buffer here for people who are supposed to be doing investigation work on behalf of the state. … They’re scared to speak up when things go wrong because they’re afraid they’ll lose their position,” she said.

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