- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 16, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Iowa Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert approved positive performance evaluations for the agency’s former chief unemployment appeals judge, records show, undermining her public claims that he was a poor manager who decided cases slowly.

Wahlert sharply criticized the agency’s former chief administrative law judge Joe Walsh on April 3, hours after he filed a wrongful termination lawsuit. He contends that Wahlert laid off both him and his wife, who worked in another agency division, after he opposed Wahlert’s efforts to change his job into a political appointment and to favor employers over workers in decisions.

While the state government typically declines to comment on litigation, the department issued a statement calling the lawsuit a frivolous attempt to shift attention from “the poor performance” of Walsh’s appeals bureau. That elevated the dispute, which comes amid a federal inquiry into Democratic accusations that Wahlert, an appointee of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, has pressured judges to rule against workers.

The statement accused Walsh of failing to meet Department of Labor standards - as both an individual judge and with the 14-judge bureau he oversaw - of deciding 60 percent of cases within 30 days and also said he failed to provide his employees with mandatory performance reviews. And it claimed Walsh’s wife “freely chose not to accept” a job that was offered when her position was eliminated.

Walsh said he was stunned that Wahlert attacked his performance since she’d never done so before, disputed her claims in interviews with The Associated Press and provided documents supporting his rebuttals. Chief among them were evaluations signed by Wahlert in 2012 and 2013 that indicated Walsh was meeting expectations and improving the bureau’s efficiency and raised no criticism.

“This is what’s so frustrating to me about it: If there was any issue with my work performance, I had a right to know about it. I had a right to defend myself,” he said.

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which will defend Wahlert in court, believes that sending the news release was inappropriate, spokesman Geoff Greenwood said. IWD shared a draft with his office, which didn’t approve its release, he said.

IWD spokeswoman Kerry Koonce declined to comment.

The 2012 evaluation noted that Walsh’s bureau made significant improvements after he took over in January 2011. Then, the bureau was deciding less than 10 percent of cases within 30 days. By July, the bureau was exceeding the federal standards and its average did for the year. Walsh also “complied with all agency management criteria,” and none of his 140 decisions were overturned, it said.

The 2013 evaluation noted that the bureau just missed meeting the federal 30-day standard in 2012. But it noted that the bureau dramatically improved another case efficiency measure called Minutes Per Unit, moving from 36th best in the country to 18th. Walsh said he had focused on that standard at Wahlert’s direction.

Walsh was IWD’s deputy director under Democratic Gov. Chet Culver from 2007 to 2011, earning exceptional evaluations from Director Elisabeth Buck. After Branstad won election, Walsh became chief administrative law judge. Branstad named Wahlert, a businesswoman, to direct the agency.

The lawsuit claims that after Walsh opposed Wahlert’s pro-employer agenda, IWD last year changed his merit-based job into a political position with no protections. Walsh argued that the change violated federal law, and the state relented after the Department of Labor agreed. In response, state officials tried to change Walsh’s duties to remove his ability to decide cases so that it could legally become a political position.

Walsh protested that move as bad policy. The next month, the department laid off Walsh and his wife - a program coordinator in the Division of Workforce Services - in what it called a budget-cutting reorganization.

In addition, Walsh disputed Wahlert’s allegation that his wife declined another job that was offered. Instead, he said, she declined to exercise union bumping rights that would have required her to take a demotion and the job of one of her friends.

Walsh also said that Wahlert was aware that he didn’t think the state’s performance evaluation forms were useful and that he instead met more routinely with judges to give them feedback. When she asked for the first time last year why he hadn’t completed them, he said he addressed the issue immediately.

After Walsh’s firing, Wahlert started supervising the judges herself.

Based on concerns raised by several judges, Democratic Sen. Bill Dotzler of Waterloo alleged last month that Wahlert has violated a federal law that requires unemployment claims to be decided impartially. Calling for her resignation, he claimed Wahlert demanded tallies on how they often the judges rule in favor of employers and workers and requested they create tip sheets to help employers.

The Labor Department is reviewing those claims, which Wahlert denies. Branstad defends her as an “outstanding director” and calls the allegations politically motivated.

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