- Associated Press - Monday, March 17, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Gov. Terry Branstad is ordering a comprehensive review of his administration’s policies to pay settlements to former workers who agree to sign confidentiality agreements, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds said Monday.

Reynolds said she and Branstad did not know about the agreements with six former employees, who were secretly paid a total of $282,314 if they agreed to keep quiet. The agreements were signed over the past three years.

Speaking at the administration’s weekly news conference, Reynolds said she and Branstad learned of the payments and confidentiality agreements in a story published Sunday in the Des Moines Register. Branstad is on vacation in Arizona and was not at the news conference.

The settlements were negotiated with the workers at the state agency level, avoiding the normal process that would take them to the Iowa Appeal Board, which would make them public.

Five of the settlements were negotiated with construction or design engineers by the Iowa Department of Administrative Services and the other was with a leader in the Center for Acute Disease Epidemiology at the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Many of the workers challenged their layoffs by filing complaints with Iowa Public Employment Relations Board which oversees the rights of state and local government employees in Iowa covered by union contracts. Some asked for their jobs back and claimed their dismissals were politically motivated.

Dean Ibsen, a construction engineer, was laid off in February 2012. He had worked for the state since 1999, and refused to sign a confidentiality agreement, he told the newspaper (https://dmreg.co/1cQxnyH ). He contends his position was eliminated and his duties shifted illegally to a job not covered by the union and reclassified as an at-will position, which means the worker can be fired by the governor or his top staff at any time.

“These efforts reek of cronyism and violate Iowa’s longstanding system of merit based employment,” Ibsen said in a statement filed in May 2012 with the Iowa Public Employment Relations Board. A registered Democrat, he received $70,826 dollars in settlement money. He earned $102,000 a year when his job ended.

Administrative Service office spokesman Caleb Hunter told the newspaper that the layoffs were part of a reorganization of the state’s construction process.

“No cronyism, no conspiracies, just better quality projects, completed on time and at a savings to the taxpayer,” Hunter said.

The reorganization saves the state more than $730,000 a year through better oversight of projects, on-time completion and streamlining a process that once was paper-heavy and required multiple signatures across the department, he said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Monday.

Hunter said the agency will “work with governor’s office in any way that we can to provide them more information and any other items they’d like to have” for the review of the confidentiality agreements.

The newspaper obtained the settlement agreements through an open records request.

Reynolds said the administration appoints competent agency directors and doesn’t micromanage them.

“We found it troubling when we learned about the confidentiality clause and we intend to put together a group that will perform a comprehensive review of the process,” she said.

She said a group will be assembled this week to review the practice “and we will continue to take a look at the process and take action where action is required.”

Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, said Miller believes the confidentiality clauses are not enforceable under Iowa law because the settlements are public records.

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