Iowa Democrats pass proposed government reforms

Republican leaders dismiss moves as political 'gimmick'

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DES MOINES — On a party-line vote, an Iowa Senate panel Tuesday approved a wide-ranging list of proposed government reforms intended to bolster accountability and transparency in the wake of allegations brought against the Branstad administration that one Republican dismissed as “political theater.”

Majority Democrats on the Senate Government Oversight Committee said the ideas, compiled from six months of testimony, provide a comprehensive approach for expanding protections for state employees and others who act as whistle-blowers and establishing due process in the state’s use of a “do-not-hire” database for former state workers.

Other provisions approved on a 3-2 vote would ban secret settlements and so-called “hush money” for ex-public employees throughout state government, eliminate agency “slush funds” to “disguise” settlement payments, bar no-bid contracts, outlaw cronyism in the hiring state employees and take political influence out of the judicial process.

“These reforms are intended to fix underlying problems in state government, problems which — if not addressed — could damage the effectiveness of state government and leave the door open to similar scandals in future Republican or Democratic administrations,” said committee chairwoman Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines.

“I expect the Iowa Legislature will debate legislation based on these proposed reforms next year,” she added. “It is my hope that Republicans and Democrats will set aside partisan differences and take the steps necessary to get Iowa’s state government back on track and prevent scandals like this from happening again.”

However, Sen. Julian Garrett, R-Indianola, said the hours of testimony from state employees — some under subpoena — disproved many of the allegations brought against Gov. Terry Branstad and his administration as Democrats tried to elicit responses to support conclusions that had already been drawn.

“A lot of this is just political theater and wasn’t borne out by the facts,” said Garrett, who noted there were a few recommendations he could have accepted, but the committee vote was up-or-done on the entire list as a “campaign gimmick.”

“It’s clear no laws were broken, no codes of ethics were violated; instead, we have discovered there is a difference of opinion in management styles,” said Garrett of a process estimated to have cost at least $100,000 in tracking down documentation and compiling evidence.

“Senate Democrats have shown no proof of the allegations that they’ve made. The truth is Iowa’s being run exceptionally well by Gov. Branstad and Democrats are simply trying to tear him down for political gain,” he added. “The governor is the one that stopped this — these confidentiality agreements. They’d been going on for years. He stopped them and he’s not getting credit for that.”

However, Petersen said the process exposed systematic problems within state government regarding questionable hiring and bidding practices, undue political influence being exerted on state employees, mismanagement withstate agencies and secret dealings by Branstad administration officials.

She called Garrett’s contentions “a bunch of baloney” that the committee’s hearing have been political theater, adding she was disappointed Republicans were content to “turn a blind eye” to Iowans who had agreed to come forward and testify.

“We did find some answers and they were not the same that Gov. Branstad and his secret investigation team uncovered,” Petersen added. “I feel like (Republicans) just continue to reach into their bag of tricks and try to spin it that way. I think Iowans want clean government and they deserve answers. I feel I’ve done my job.”

Last month, State Auditor Mary Mosiman issued a report indicating that state officials entered into 42 settlement agreements with former employees that included confidentiality clauses during a four-year period that ended last June, but only one included an additional payment for a secrecy provision.

Mosiman concluded that none of the confidentiality clauses contradicted Iowa’s open-records law, which states that settlement agreements are public records. It appeared the confidentiality clauses were intended to govern the behavior of the parties to the settlement agreements without altering the public’s access to the settlement agreements, she noted.

State payments were made in 38 settlement agreements with former employees which did not relate to back-pay issues totaled about $2.4 million, including about $541,000 settled through the grievance process and another $1,853,000 resulting from court proceedings between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2014, the auditor reported.

In response to the secret employee settlements, Branstad issued an executive order earlier this year to bar confidential employee settlements going forward and urged lawmakers to change state law to require more disclosure and government openness.

The GOP-run House passed a bill to accomplish that but majority Democrats in the Senate expanded the measure to provide whistle-blower protections, prohibitions against secret settlements and cronyism, require more government accountability but stopped short of fully disclosing reasons state employees are fired.

Garrett said Tuesday he will push the GOP approach again next session, while Petersen said she expected the Senate committee will continue hearings to look into problems that have beset the constructions of new prisons in Iowa. She also expected several Branstad appointees, notably Iowa Workforce Development Teresa Wahlert, to face a tough confirmation process in the Senate next year if Branstad is re-elected and keeps them in his next administration.

Here are the reforms proposed by Democrats on the Senate Government Oversight Committee:

*Ban the use of secret settlements and hush money in all branches of government; eliminate slush funds used by departments and agencies to disguise settlement payments

*Expand protections for state employees and contractors who blow the whistle on wrongful activities

*Reverse trend of cronyism in the hiring of state employees by requiring all job openings to be openly advertised, transparent and subject to legislative oversight

*Reform the state’s “do-not-hire” database to ensure due process and prevent abuses

*Prevent no-bid contracts on state projects by requiring all state entities to follow formal competitive bidding procedures for projects above $100,000

*Increase accountability in state infrastructure projects by requiring that all major infrastructure changes be approved by the Legislative Committee that originally appropriated the money

*Reinstate the Vertical Infrastructure Advisory Committee and review the state construction cost benefit analysis by the Legislative Service Agency and act on its recommendations

*Take political influence out of the judicial process by ensuring Iowans receive a fair and impartial hearing; protect the integrity and independence of administrative law judges by preventing political appointees and at-will employees from supervising or evaluating them

*Restore integrity to Iowa’s unemployment trust fund by appointing trusted and transparent leadership and updating or replacing the call-in system for unemployment benefits

*Require the Legislature be notified when the governor receives reports of founded workplace violence in state agencies

l Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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