DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - The director of the Iowa Department of Administrative Services said Thursday he paid no hush money to fired workers as part of their settlement agreements with the state, contradicting testimony by several workers who say they were offered cash to remain quiet.
“There was no pay for silence in any agreements. It’s a complete misinterpretation,” said DAS Director Mike Carroll during two hours of intense questioning at a joint Government Oversight Committee hearing Thursday.
Carroll acknowledged he made a mistake by authorizing confidentiality clauses in settlements with disciplined or fired state workers that did not align with Gov. Terry Branstad’s government openness philosophy.
He said Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds “knew nothing about the terms and conditions within these settlement agreements.” He also denied top Branstad staff members knew and said he alone authorized them.
Carroll said he consulted with Ryan Lamb, who was then an attorney with DAS but has since left state government.
More than 320 state workers have entered settlement agreements since the Republican governor took office in 2011, and more than two dozen were asked to sign confidentiality agreements. The total paid exceeded $500,000. Lawmakers have raised questions about where the money came from and why the workers were fired. Some have alleged their firing was motivated by politics.
Branstad said he learned confidentiality clauses were used in some agreements in a Des Moines Register story and quickly signed an executive order banning the practice.
Carroll said confidentiality agreements were negotiated with workers through the state grievance process using a mediator.
He said he signed four confidentiality agreements. He said the purpose was so one individual would not share the settlement amount with another in an effort to “minimize the amount of money taxpayers would have to pay to settle these claims.”
He said testimony at a Wednesday hearing at the Capitol from Carol Frank, a mechanical engineer with 30 years of experience who was laid off in September 2011, was not truthful.
Frank said she fought to get her job back, but the state refused. She settled for just over $77,300 and said she was initially offered $2,000 to keep the agreement quiet and declined. The state then offered $5,000 and she accepted it.
“I took it. I felt lousy about it,” she said. “I don’t know that it was worth it.”
Carroll said he signed Frank’s settlement agreement.
“That just didn’t happen,” he said of the additional money for silence in an interview after the hearing. “She was offered money to settle her grievance that was stated on the face of the agreement itself.”
Frank said after the hearing that her attorney called her with the offer of additional money after he was contacted by Lamb.
“I think he’s not being entirely truthful which has been a pattern at DAS,” she said of Carroll.
Frank’s settlement agreement, which is now posted with others on the DAS website at Branstad’s direction, says she was to be paid $77,326.25. The confidentiality clause says she “and DAS shall undertake reasonable efforts to maintain the confidentiality of this agreement, subject to Iowa law.”
It is signed by Carroll and Frank and dated March 11, 2013.
Testimony from another DAS administrator, Doug Woodley, contradicted another former worker.
Ken Thornton, who also was laid off in 2011, said Wednesday that he was required by Woodley to write up his own job description “because he was going to hire another person to replace me.”
Woodley, who appeared with Carroll at the hearing, denied that happened.
Senate Oversight Committee Chairwoman Janet Peterson, D-Des Moines, wasn’t satisfied with the testimony that contradicted the workers.
“I still don’t believe we’re getting the right answers. I will continue to dig until we get a rock solid answer for taxpayers,” Peterson said.
She said she plans to call other state department heads and state human resources officials to the Capitol as she continues to investigate.
Carroll said the department has searched electronic records and 45 boxes of paper settlement agreements and determined they go as far back as 2000 or 2001 during the administration of Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack. He says five agreements during Vilsack’s tenure had confidentiality clauses in them.
A spokesman for Vilsack, now the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, did not immediately respond to a message.
The DAS earlier released eight agreements that included confidentiality clauses during the four years Chet Culver, also a Democrat, was governor.
Democratic Senate Leader Mike Gronstal said one big difference is confidentiality clauses before Branstad included no payments for secrecy.
The issue is likely to dominate activities at the Capitol for the remainder of the legislative session and will likely continue beyond the expected April 22 adjournment, Gronstal said.
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