- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 22, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - More than six months after the head of the Iowa Veterans Home resigned after allegations that he treated staff poorly, the state’s ombudsman revealed she is investigating complaints that veterans who live at the Marshalltown facility were mistreated.

Ombudsman Ruth Cooperrider, whose office oversees citizen complaints against the government, told the Senate Government Oversight Committee on Tuesday she is investigating the home but she couldn’t legally discuss details.

Discussion of the facility came as senators questioned Cooperrider about the state’s policies for investigating complaints and policies on access to state employees’ personnel records. The oversight committee’s investigation into those and other issues in the executive branch began more than a month ago when the issue of confidential settlement agreements with former workers surfaced.

Cooperrider said she has battled with the Iowa Attorney General’s office in the veterans home case for access to documents that she believes is provided to her office under current state law.

She said she had requested that the Iowa Department of Administrative Services provide reports from their investigations into allegations last year that former Commandant David Worley harassed and threated workers at the facility, which provides nursing care for about 500 residents and residential care facilities for 100 more living mostly independently. Only after she signed a nondisclosure agreement was her staff allowed the view reports, but they were prohibited from taking copies.

“It’s my belief that’s contrary to our authority,” she said.

Cooperrider said if lawmakers don’t clarify her authority to access confidential records, she is contemplating suing the Iowa Attorney General’s office to take the issue to the courts.

“When you’re dealing with decisions made behind closed doors, in closed sessions, that impact citizens and potentially affect the safety of citizens, we think that’s something our agency has a role in, in terms of accountability and transparency of how government is working,” she said.

Jeff Panknen, a DAS employee, told the committee Tuesday he led the investigation into the allegations against Worley, conducted interviews with several workers, then wrote a detailed report.

He declined to tell the committee whether he determined the allegations were founded, saying he wasn’t confident that information was public.

“This is working a little bit like a secret form of government,” Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines said. “If there’s a case of sexual discrimination, harassment, or a case of violence in workplace, does the public have the right to know whether that was founded or not founded?”

Panknen’s boss, Michelle Minnehan, the state’s chief human resources officer, told the committee she gave the report to Gov. Terry Branstad’s chief of staff at the time, Jeff Boeyink.

McCoy said after Branstad’s staff received the report, the governor continued to support Worley.

“My opinion is this thing got swept under the rug,” McCoy said.

Worley, who was appointed commandant of the home in 2010, resigned Oct. 1. Branstad thanked him for “his years of service and important changes at the Iowa Veterans Home.”

Worley appeared to have an unlisted home telephone number and could not be reached for comment.

On Tuesday, Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said allegations about any state employee are contained in the individual’s personnel file, which is confidential under state law.

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