Government

Ousted DHS chief Jerry Foxhoven 'shocked' when told to exit Iowa Human Services

His attorney is pursuing whistleblower action against the state

Former DHS director Jerry Foxhoven holds a news conference Thursday with Attorney Thomas Duff at Duff Law Firm in West Des Moines. Foxhoven, whom Gov. Kim Reynolds asked to resign earlier this summer, announced that he is filing a wrongful termination claim with the State Appeal Board, the first step in filing a lawsuit against the governor. (KC McGinnis/Freelance)
Former DHS director Jerry Foxhoven holds a news conference Thursday with Attorney Thomas Duff at Duff Law Firm in West Des Moines. Foxhoven, whom Gov. Kim Reynolds asked to resign earlier this summer, announced that he is filing a wrongful termination claim with the State Appeal Board, the first step in filing a lawsuit against the governor. (KC McGinnis/Freelance)
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WEST DES MOINES — In announcing his intention to sue the state of Iowa over his forced resignation, the former Iowa Department of Human Services director said Thursday he questioned the legality of the funding of a staff position for a person within the Governor’s Office whom he believed no longer was furthering the department’s goals.

But before he could consult with the State Attorney General’s Office, Jerry Foxhoven was told by an official in Gov. Kim Reynolds’ administration to sign a letter of resignation, turn in his phone and leave a state job he’d held for two years.

“I was absolutely shocked,” Foxhoven said at his attorney’s West Des Moines office during his first news conference since the ouster. “I was caught completely unaware.”

Now, Foxhoven plans to pursue a lawsuit against the state for wrongful termination under whistle blower laws, he told reporters, claiming the governor and her staff have been dishonest about the circumstances of his departure.

Thomas Duff, his attorney, intends to file a legal claim the State Appeal Board before moving forward with a lawsuit. Duff said they will seek a jury trial and monetary damages for lost wages, emotional distress and damages to Foxhoven’s reputation.

Duff anticipates the process could take 18 months to two years to be resolved, unless there’s a settlement.

In a statement emailed to The Gazette, Reynolds said, “As I have consistently shared with Iowans, many factors went into my decision to ask for Jerry Foxhoven’s resignation. Foxhoven never raised concerns with me or my staff about the salary agreements in question, and he never asked my staff for a legal opinion or said he would be reaching out to the Attorney General’s Office for one.

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“I would never ask anyone to do something they thought was illegal. My focus remains on the many Iowans that DHS serves, and I am committed to selecting a new director who will take this agency to the next level.”

Foxhoven told reporters the dispute arose when he objected to a request by the governor’s office for his department to continue funding the salary of the governor’s deputy chief of staff, Paige Thorson, for state fiscal year 2020 from a budget pool of state and federal funds.

Foxhoven previously approved funding for Thorson, who was aiding the transition of Iowa’s Medicaid managed-care system, in fiscal years 2018 and 2019. But in discussions with Reynolds’ Chief of Staff Sara Craig Gongol around February or March, Foxhoven said he questioned the legality of diverting Human Services funds for a purpose that no longer directly benefited the department, as Thorson’s role had shifted away from furthering the department’s mission.

But, Foxhoven said, Gongol refused to consult with Reynolds’ legal counsel, Sam Langholtz.

Foxhoven added he believed it was appropriate to use department funds for Thorson’s salary when she was doing work for the Human Services department and its Medicaid program, but wanted to consult with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office before agreeing to the continued funding.

He told reporters he planned to do so after the attorneys had wrapped up a federal trial on the state-run Eldora institute — on Tuesday or Wednesday, June 18 or 19.

However, on Monday, June 17, he was asked to resign as director by Gongol and Langholtz.

“I would go to the first trainings for our new workers, particularly social workers ... and I said to them, ‘If you follow the rules and you try to do the right thing, I got your back,’” Foxhoven recalled on Thursday. “One of the reasons I came out (about the resignation) was because it was important for me to make sure those 4,000 people that I’ve been saying that to over and over again hear that I live by that, too.

“I’m going to do the right thing and I’m going to follow the rules.”

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Foxhoven said he did not speak directly with Reynolds — who had appointed him to the post — but was told she requested he step down from overseeing one of the state’s largest agencies because she wanted to move Human Services in “a new direction.” He also stated he has not had an individual meeting with the governor since the election in November.

Earlier this week, Reynolds defended the decision for Foxhoven to leave, saying she has charted a new direction aimed at “taking this agency to the next level.”

“This is an at-will, political appointment that serves at the pleasure of the governor, and I have indicated that there were several factors that went into this decision, and I made the decision to go in a different direction,’ Reynolds said at a news conference Tuesday.

Reynolds and her staff also have told reporters Foxhoven never raised concerns regarding these agreements before he was asked to resign.

Foxhoven, however, said on Thursday they are “not telling the truth” if they said he never questioned the legality of Thorson’s salary.

Foxhoven said he has spoken to a federal investigator who sought him out to discuss his previous comments that the governor’s staff had asked him to do something he thought was illegal.

State Auditor Rob Sand also contacted him to discuss the matter, Foxhoven said.

News of the former director’s resignation six weeks ago made nationwide news after his appreciation of the late rapper Tupac Shakur became more publicly known. Foxhoven — who noted his favorite Tupac song is “Changes” — had sent emails to staff as part of his effort to improve the culture at the department.

“I think I was doing a good job (as director) with the cards that we were dealt and that we’re moving in the right direction,” Foxhoven said.

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He added he worked to change the culture at the department despite having an understaffed workforce and an underfunded budget.

He also pushed back on Reynolds’ comment on Tuesday alluding to criticism the department faced around privatized Medicaid, state-run institutions and foster care, among others. All of that had taken place before his tenure began two years ago, Foxhoven said.

Foxhoven believes that Reynolds did make decisions that were good for the department, and that she was supportive of his four- to five-year plan to add more social workers to the staff, among other initiatives.

“I didn’t agree with her certainly on everything, but I think that we were able to win her over on some issues to get her moving in the right direction for us,” Foxhoven said.

Foxhoven — who said he wanted nothing but an Oreo Blizzard after his ouster — said he’s unsure of his next move. Foxhoven, now 67, hopes to pursue a job in the not-for-profit sector.

• Comments: (319) 3688536, michaela.ramm@thegazette.com; (515) 243-7220, rod. boshart@thegazette.com

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