- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 1, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - A state worker who violates a “blackout period” of prohibited communication during competitive contract bidding could be fired under a bill that passed unanimously Tuesday in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

The chamber voted 49-0 in support of the measure, which would require the Iowa Department of Administrative Services to establish sanctions for any employee of a state agency who makes prohibited contact with a bidder seeking a competitive contract. Under the bill, such a move could lead to a job suspension, demotion or dismissal.

“We should have consequences in place for bad actions,” said Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, who spoke on the floor before the vote.

Petersen said the legislation would address communication last year between Michael Bousselot, Gov. Terry Branstad’s former health care policy director, and representatives for WellCare, a private insurance company that sought a contract to help oversee Iowa’s $4.2 billion Medicaid program.

Companies that lost out on a contract noted the communication in an administrative challenge over the state’s bidding process. The companies also pointed to emails between Mikki Stier, director of the Medicaid program, and a WellCare representative. A judge overseeing the issue later called such communication during the blackout period improper.

WellCare was initially awarded a contract, but it was later terminated amid other concerns regarding its bid. Bousselot was promoted to be Branstad’s chief of staff.

Bousselot referred questions Tuesday to Branstad spokesman Ben Hammes, who said via email that the governor is generally “supportive of any effort that will ensure procurement laws protect taxpayers and taxpayer dollars.” Asked specifically about Petersen’s comments, Hammes said no one in the governor’s office played any role in the bidding process regarding Medicaid privatization contracts.

The legislation would also require DAS to establish procedures for designating an individual as ineligible to be considered for a state job, a move that would address a “blacklist” or “do-not-hire” list of former state employees. The issue gained attention a few years ago amid allegations that the state was adding people to a list without notice or explanation.

Petersen attempted to pass legislation on the issue last session. The measure this year would also spell out an appeal process for anyone who is notified that they’re ineligible for state employment.

DAS spokesman Caleb Hunter said the agency has the authority under administrative rules to disqualify people for a state job. He said the agency doesn’t maintain a list of disqualified individuals, but instead maintains individual records in an applicant tracking program.

Hunter declined to comment further on the bill.

The bill now heads to the Republican-majority House, where its future is unclear.

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