- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 20, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa’s workforce agency provided unemployment benefits to some people that didn’t seek them earlier this year, and staff was urged to stay quiet about what had happened, according to internal emails provided to a state legislative oversight committee.

Iowa Workforce Development spokeswoman Kerry Koonce confirmed Wednesday that 85 people received excess unemployment payments during one week in March. Officials issued benefits to everyone who got them the previous week after a system malfunction meant they couldn’t process updated information from recipients. Koonce stressed that about 30,000 received accurate payments.

Agency emails provided to the Iowa Senate Government Oversight Committee show that after the malfunction, a manager emailed staffers, instructing them to provide no information about what happened, blame “technical difficulties” and to accept refunds only if they were offered.

The Oversight Committee is set to review what happened at hearings next week. Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, who chairs the committee, questioned why agency workers had been told not to talk.

“Once again we’re seeing secrecy coming from an administration that claims transparency,” Petersen said.



Koonce said agency Director Teresa Wahlert made the call to issue the benefits and said the excess payments cost $27,000 at most, but noted that the total was likely less. She said the overall amount paid would have been up to $12 million. She said the department is working on a system upgrade to prevent future problems.

The memo to staffers urging silence was an effort to quell “rumor-mongering,” Koonce said. She said there was no need to publicly disclose what happened.

“In the scheme of things, the amount of people this affected was very small,” Koonce said.

Jimmy Centers, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, said the governor supported the decision to provide the benefits in this fashion. He did not respond to questions about why staffers were told to stay quiet.

“In a difficult situation following a technical glitch, Iowa Workforce Development acted to ensure about 30,000 Iowans receive the aid they needed and were expecting to receive,” Centers said in an email.

Lawmakers from the Democratic-majority Senate have also been reviewing other allegations about the management of the workforce agency.

Democratic Sen. Bill Dotzler, of Waterloo, has alleged that Wahlert has violated federal law that requires unemployment claims to be decided impartially. He has said that Wahlert demanded tallies on how often the judges rule in favor of employers and workers and requested the judges create tip sheets to help employers.

Dotzler has asked the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate Wahlert. Rhonda Burke, a Chicago-based spokeswoman for the department, said there is no investigation at this time, but noted the Department of Labor is working with the Iowa Workforce agency to ensure that the agency is providing an “independent appeals process for unemployment insurance claimants.” She said the state has been cooperative.

Koonce said Wahlert is not directly involved with claims and that the department will offer data next week to show that employers are not being favored.

Wahlert is also facing a lawsuit from the state’s former top unemployment appeals judge. Joe Walsh has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit contending that Wahlert fired him for opposing her efforts to change his job into a political appointment.

Koonce said the agency would not comment on the lawsuit.

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