Government

Iowa Corrections Board broke law by not approving candidates for director, state audit says

Director Beth Skinner is qualified, but Auditor asks board to create procedures to follow the law in the future

Beth Skinner, head of Iowa Department of Corrections, is seen in a 2019 photo. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)
Beth Skinner, head of Iowa Department of Corrections, is seen in a 2019 photo. (Rod Boshart/The Gazette)

The Iowa Board of Corrections broke the law by not approving a list of candidates for the Iowa Department of Corrections director before Gov. Kim Reynolds named Beth Skinner to the job in June 2019, the State Auditor’s Office reported this week.

State Auditor Rob Sand said he isn’t questioning Skinner’s appointment, confirmed by the Iowa Senate in February, but has asked the Corrections Board to make sure it does its job in recommending finalists for director openings in the future.

“Beth Skinner is certainly qualified for the job,” Sand told The Gazette on Tuesday. “But we should still care about following the law and we should still look and see if there are other people who are qualified who should be considered.”

Section 904.105 of the Code of Iowa states, in part, “The board of corrections shall: (3) Recommend to the governor the names of individuals qualified for the position of director when a vacancy exists in the office.”

To comply with this statute, the board must vote in a public meeting to approve the list of qualified individuals to send to the governor, Sand said.

“The Board of Corrections did not take action to approve qualified individuals for the Director position or to approve those names be provided to the Governor prior to the appointment of Director Skinner,” the audit report states. “This lack of action resulted in the Board’s violation of Chapter 904.105 of the Code of Iowa pertaining to this appointment.”

Marty Ryan, a social justice and public policy advocate, wrote about this situation in a piece published Dec. 24, 2019, by Bleeding Heartland. Ryan said he told the board in a public meeting in early 2019 that it was its job to recommend qualified applicants to succeed Jerry Bartruff, who retired as director in December 2018.

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“The Board of Corrections chair emailed Paul Trombino, chief operations officer in the governor’s office, on May 1 to let him know ‘a subcommittee’ of the board recommended five candidates for Department of Corrections director (Jim McKinney, Beth Skinner, William Hill, Brian Foster, and Alan Finnan),” Ryan wrote.

When the board met in May 2019, there was no agenda item to approve applicants for the director position, Ryan said. “Minutes likewise indicate that the board did not discuss or ratify the recommendation.”

Ryan filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board, saying the Corrections Board violated open meetings law by allowing a subcommittee to deliberate in private and then pass on the finalist names without voting in public. The board recommended dismissing Ryan’s complaint, he said.

Sand said Tuesday his office did not learn anything that contradicted Ryan’s report about the board’s actions, but the Auditor did not find evidence there was intent to subvert Iowa’s open meetings law. Sand also clarified that fault lies with the Corrections Board, not the governor.

“The obligations we are talking about here are placed upon the board,” he said. “The governor is simply supposed to hire someone that meets certain qualifications.”

Reynolds said Tuesday she did not know before the Auditor’s report that the board had not followed the law.

“I think the auditor has, through a report, noted that the board didn’t fulfill a step that they were supposed to fulfill,” she said. “But again, I did not know.”

She praised Skinner for her response to COVID-19 threats in Iowa prisons. “Director Skinner has done a phenomenal job and really proud during some really difficult times to step into that position and lead in the manner that she has is a real testament to her and her team on what they’ve been able to do,” Reynolds said.

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Skinner, who earned a doctorate in social work from the University of Iowa, worked from 2015 to 2019 as Iowa’s recidivism reduction coordinator and later director of risk reduction for the Corrections Department.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

Erin Murphy of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed.

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