- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Iowa Workforce Development managers intentionally thwarted progress on a long-stalled $795,000 plan to adopt an electronic filing system for Iowa workers’ compensation cases, a longtime agency webmaster has testified.

Former Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Christopher Godfrey contends in a lawsuit that managers withheld technical support and took other steps to delay the system, which he championed to save time and money in processing, mailing and storing documents. Godfrey claims the agency was trying to make him look bad because he defied Republican Gov. Terry Branstad’s requests to resign, beginning in December 2010.

Godfrey’s claim of interference has gotten a boost from agency webmaster Mark French, who recently testified that he was ordered by his supervisor at the time, Kerry Koonce, to stop helping Godfrey with the project in June 2011.

“I was not only to stop working … I was to not continue with the duties that were requested of me by Commissioner Godfrey,” French said during a Dec. 23 deposition obtained by The Associated Press through the open records law. He said he spent many hours with Godfrey designing the websites linked to the program - not the software itself - so Godfrey “could have a system to serve the people of Iowa.”

A conservative, French said he came forward to testify after speaking with his pastor and provided contemporaneous notes to back up his claims.

“Something isn’t right, and it’s disturbing,” French said. He added that he’d previously shared concerns with his state senator because, “I knew there was going to be trouble when the lawsuit hit, when this multimillion dollar project went down.”

French said Godfrey’s system was the only major project that has failed during his 14-year tenure. When other projects face obstacles, agency employees “put our nose to the grindstone and work to make it happen, to make the project successful.”

Teresa Wahlert, a Branstad appointee who was the agency’s director when Godfrey was asked to resign, and other state officials have denied French’s allegations, saying that no one tried to block the project. They blamed other factors for the delays, including poor performance from an outside contractor and technical complexity converting corrupted data from the old system to the new.

Koonce testified in a December deposition that French barely worked on the system. Koonce said she never ordered him to stop working on it in 2011 and that she believes he was remembering a different conversation that happened under the previous administration in 2010. French said he is not confusing the dates and he produced a 2011 performance review signed by Koonce that listed the system as one of his major projects.

Godfrey proposed moving to electronic filing of legal documents to improve efficiency, as many state and federal court systems have done. Lawmakers approved money for the project. With the blessing of the Iowa attorney general’s office, Godfrey’s division hired HCL America in 2009 on a no-bid, fixed-price contract because it had delivered a similar electronic filing system in Georgia. The project was expected to take 10 months to complete, but isn’t finished nearly six years later.

Godfrey’s division believed the system was months away from going live when Branstad won election in November 2010. Branstad soon asked Godfrey to resign so that he could appoint his own, more business-friendly commissioner. Godfrey declined, disputing allegations that he was biased against businesses and noting that his term ran until 2015. He told Branstad that he wanted to stay on, in part, so that he could implement the system.

What happened after that is contested.

State officials say HCL, which has received $702,900 in payments, hasn’t delivered on key milestones in its contract and they are withholding the final $92,000 as a result. But Godfrey said the contractor did great work and could have finished long ago without state interference.

French’s allegations are disappointing, but not surprising, said former Iowa Association of Workers’ Compensation Lawyers President Jackie Armstrong. She said agency leaders refused to meet with her to discuss Godfrey’s concerns, which she called “evidence that there was a real lack of interest in making sure this project worked.”

“It’s an appalling, appalling waste of taxpayer resources to have abandoned this project the way the state did,” she said, calling it “an affront” to businesses, insurers and injured workers.

Godfrey left last year for a federal position. Branstad’s appointment to replace him, Joseph Cortese, said Monday that he is reviewing whether the project can be salvaged or whether he should start from scratch on a new filing system “that will be beneficial to the agency.”

French testified that he fears retaliation for going public with his claims, but: “I’m going to tell the truth if it kills me.”

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Associated Press reporter Catherine Lucey contributed from Des Moines.

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Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rjfoley


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