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Iowa's Public Employment Relations Board official steers clear of controversy

James Riordan responds to Gov. Branstad's comments

Exterior view of the Captiol in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012. (Steve Pope/Freelance)
Exterior view of the Captiol in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday Jan. 31, 2012. (Steve Pope/Freelance)

DES MOINES – A Republican member of Iowa’s Public Employment Relations Board said Monday he won’t comment on allegations made last week by PERB’s outgoing chairman that Gov. Terry Branstad’s top aides pressured the board to hire a judge who had been hand-picked by the governor’s staff.

Jamie Van Fossen, a PERB member who formerly served in the Iowa House, said the quasi-judicial state agency he works for has to decide difficult employer-employee cases that often have “substantial political impacts or highly charged political overtones, or both.”

“It is essential that our five (administrative law judges) and board members remain out of, and above the political fray. This ensures the public at large that we at PERB put forward decisions that are based on the facts and the law presented and not on political favor,” Van Fossen said in an email reply to an interview request.

“The PERB board and ALJs do not reply to media inquiries which in any way would or could cast a shadow on our impartiality,” added Van Fossen, a former GOP state representative from Davenport. “Any comments I make on a soon-to-be-former board member may cast a doubt on present and future cases to come before PERB and I am not willing to sacrifice the integrity of PERB for a short-term news cycle.”

Last week James Riordan, a former Democratic state senator from Waukee who is PERB chairman until April 30, told the Senate Government Oversight Committee that Jeff Boeyink, Branstad’s former chief of staff, and the governor’s current legal counsel Brenna Findley threatened to reduce PERB funding if the board did not hire former Polk County district judge Robert Wilson to a state post that considered employer-worker complaints. Riordan, a PERB member for 14 years, said all the communications were oral and there was no “email trail,” so it would only be other board members who could corroborate what transpired.

Branstad and his office issued statements Thursday calling Riordan’s charges unfounded. “I think it’s very unfair and very unfortunate. There’s clearly no evidence,” the governor told reporters the following day when he again was asked to comment on the situation.

To further refute Riordan’s testimony, the governor’s office noted that PERB’s budget was increased from $854,386 to $1,057,871 effective five months before Wilson’s hire and is $290,549 higher than it was in fiscal 2010. Branstad’s staff also voluntarily released all emails from Boeyink, Findley and PERB members to show there was no “pressure” to hire Wilson or attempt to influence decisions.

Riordan said he was “taken aback” by Van Fossen’s email statement, saying PERB “became compromised and part of the ‘political fray’ when we were forced to hire the governor’s friend in November 2012.” He said that had not happened in the board’s previous 40-year history.

In response to Branstad’s comments last week, Riordan said “I resent the governor basically calling me a liar when he said my allegations are unfounded. I am willing to take a lie detector test anytime and I challenge the governor and his former chief of staff, Jeff Boeyink, to do the same.

“I know that I have told the truth and several of the staff at PERB were party to discussions with the board about our deep concerns that the agency budget would suffer horribly if we did not comply with the governor’s wishes and hire Bob Wilson,” he added in an email response.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@sourcemedia.net

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