- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 15, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Chinese Association of Iowa executive director Swallow Yan has helped connect Gov. Terry Branstad with Chinese presidents and residents, boosting relations between a farming state and a growing superpower with a huge demand for Iowa’s agricultural exports.

But Yan is upset with Branstad these days after the governor’s administration made public a 2011 settlement showing Yan was paid $100,000 to drop a discrimination lawsuit and resign his 16-year job at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Yan is among scores of state workers who signed employment agreements that were once private, but recently released amid a personnel scandal roiling Branstad’s administration. The details of his case are particularly significant because they touch on an issue of great importance to Branstad - Iowa’s relationship with China.

“My reputation is doomed,” Yan told the Associated Press in an interview.

After Branstad took office in January 2011, Yan traveled to attend a Chicago reception for traveling Chinese President Hu Jintao, bringing a gift and letter from Branstad. Yan’s group helped arrange a 2011 reunion in China between Branstad and its then-vice president, Xi Jinping, who Branstad had met in 1985 when Xi came to Iowa on an exchange. The meeting led to a visit by the soon-to-be Chinese president to Iowa in 2012, which prompted a $4.3 billion deal to export soybeans and additional trade opportunities. Yan was inducted into the Iowa Volunteer Hall of Fame in 2011 for spending “countless hours to connect the two cultures.”

Yan grew up in China and moved to Iowa for graduate school in 1991 to attend Iowa State University. He graduated in 1995 with a computer science degree, and was hired by DNR to manage a safe drinking water information system. He says he fell in love with Iowa, and became a leader in the nonprofit Chinese Association of Iowa to help immigrants. The association, which is funded by donations, helps advocate for Chinese Americans and hosts events such as cultural festivals. He became a U.S. citizen in 2009.

Yan worked for DNR under two supervisors without incident, drawing praise in a 2006 performance evaluation as a “man of integrity” and substantial asset. He was recognized for helping recruit minorities to state employment. But he says his career started to unravel after he got a new supervisor, following a reorganization that began in 2005 under Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack in which IT employees were consolidated into a single bureau and had their job duties changed.

Yan and four other veteran employees sued managers Rick Hindman and Jeff Franklin in 2009 alleging they were unfairly targeted for demotions, while younger white male employees were favored. Yan said that he was singled out for scrutiny by Hindman, who noted staff complaints about Yan’s strong Chinese accent and language skills in a critical performance evaluation. Department officials rejected Yan’s discrimination claims, and said that his job was reclassified to a lower level to reflect current duties. They said an investigation of his computer activities led to a reprimand for spending time on personal matters, a practice he said was common among other employees who weren’t targeted.

In court, state lawyers conceded Yan’s efforts boosting the Iowa-China relationship but dismissed them as “irrelevant statements of self-promotion.”

To settle the case in August 2011 - after Republican Branstad had taken office - the department agreed to pay Yan $100,000 for emotional distress and attorneys’ fees and removed all discipline from his personnel file. In exchange, he dropped the lawsuit and resigned. He says state officials insisted on a provision requiring he not “actively seek to publicize the terms.” Three others received payments totaling $153,500.

The settlements were always public records, but never released because no one asked. But last month, Democratic lawmakers pounced on media reports involving other laid off workers who were given confidential settlements, alleging the administration paid them “hush money” for silence. To try to quell the controversy, Branstad ordered his administration to post online more than 300 settlements reached since 2011, and signed an executive order banning secrecy provisions. Yan’s agreement was among those published.

His name immediately surfaced in media reports since his payment was among the largest, which he says embarrassed his wife and children and invited questions from associates. He said he doesn’t understand how the state could release an agreement that it required him to keep quiet. And he said he believes it’s wrong that Hindman and Franklin - who didn’t return messages from the Associated Press - have been promoted to other state jobs despite the costly lawsuit.

Yan, 52, said he’d continue to work with Branstad on “Iowa’s long-term collaboration with China for business, culture and education.” But he said he wants Branstad to hold supervisors accountable for mismanagement.

“The governor cannot tolerate such scandalmakers,” he said.

Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said, “It was clear that his settlement, which he signed, was a public record.”

Former DNR Director Roger Lande, who was appointed by Branstad in 2011 and signed Yan’s settlement, said he didn’t remember specifics of the deal but called Yan a “combative personality” with subpar performance. Lande said that, if anything, Yan was “treated way too fairly.”

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