DES MOINES — The shutdown of the split-control Legislature’s 2014 session got messy Thursday morning when Senate Democrats attempted to pass a resolution giving a legislative panel broad investigative power to look into alleged mismanagement and secret dealings by Branstad administration officials.
Democrats sought to close out a politically charged, election-year session by authorizing the Government Oversight Committee to issue subpoenas for witnesses to testify under oath in an ongoing probe of “shaky” employment practices that included secret employee settlements with “hush money” payments.
Senate Resolution 121 was passed by the Senate Rules and Administrative Committee on a 7-3 vote but floor action on the measure had to be postponed until Friday morning because Senate GOP Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock objected to a fast-track discussion in the waning hours of the 2014 session. The procedural hoops mean that senators will meet for 110 calendar days when they convene at 8 a.m. Friday, while the Republican-led House completed its work and quit for the year at 5:54 a.m. Thursday.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said the extraordinary action is needed because lawmakers have been stonewalled and thwarted in their efforts to get an answer to the “most basic question” of who in state government authorized the payment of “hush money” intended to buy the silence of laid-off state employees.
“We think it seems pretty shaky what’s going on in state government,” Gronstal told reporters. “We think Iowans deserve an answer to that.”
The Senate leader said Democrats do not intend to give up in their quest to get answers to a myriad of troubling developments. According to the resolution, the scope of the investigation will be confined to confidential settlement agreements with former state workers and related payments; hiring and employment practices; bidding, purchasing and contracting policies and practices at the state Department of Administrative Services and other state agencies; the management of administrative law judges in the state’s Unemployment Insurance Services Division; and the effort of management decisions made by those judges in the management and fiduciary practices related to jobless insurance compensation.
SR 121 grants authority to the Government Oversight Committee through Dec. 31 to call witnesses, administer oaths, issue subpoenas, and cite and impose punishment for contempt – ranging from a $500 fine for an initial citation, $1,000 for a second or subsequent citation and the power to impose imprisonment for a period of up to six months.
“We do not enter this lightly,” Gronstal said. “We consider this a very serious subject.”
Democrats say they have been frustrated by the lack of information coming from DAS officials and other agencies who have denied any knowledge of secret settlements with laid-off employees that included “hush money” payments for confidentiality.
Gov. Terry Branstad fired DAS Director Mike Carroll last month just hours after evidence surfaced that Carroll gave inaccurate testimony when he told lawmakers that no “hush money” was paid to ex-state workers.
Branstad has said he did not know that 25 confidential settlements — 10 with lump-sum payments — had been signed with dismissed state workers since January 2011 until the practice came to light in a newspaper story. In response, Branstad issued an executive order to bar confidential employee settlements going forward.
Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, said it was bad form for Democrats to wait until 5 a.m. in the early hours of a marathon shutdown to introduce the resolution.
“Is this how we operate government – wait until 5 in the morning and then come with something like this?” Chapman said. “That’s real transparency.”
Dix accused Senate Democrats of engaging in “D.C.-style politics” with a surprise move as lawmakers were packing to leave the Statehouse for the year.
“This resolution is being brought after 40-50 days to try to find illegal findings. That has not been successful so it’s just the continued effort to follow the orders of the union bosses, to launch the campaign of Jack Hatch for governor and it’s simply a real unfortunate situation that’s taken place and the war on Iowa taxpayers continues,” Dix told reporters.
“Somehow along the way Democrats lost their way. They decided to favor grandstanding over governing and just got off the track of not producing, not leading,” he added.
Gronstal said lawmakers used subpoena power in past investigations of the CIETC scandal in 2006 and a probe of the Iowa Association of School Boards in 2010.
He said attempts to delay a committee probe would not deter lawmakers’ quest to get answers. The Senate leader noted that when the hush money payments were first revealed, Branstad said he opposed them, told reporters his top staff had conducted a thorough internal investigation and issued an executive order to ban them in the executive branch.
Branstad did not mention the late-arriving Senate resolution in his statement assessing the Legislature’s 2014 work product.
“Despite the partisan tone of the session, we are pleased there was agreement on the majority of our legislative plan,” Branstad said in his statement. “Our plan continues growing Iowa’s economy, attracts and matches military members with quality careers in our communities, offers more job-training opportunities for Iowans and holds tuition steady at our regent universities.
“Politics should never get in the way of passing meaningful legislation for the taxpayers we serve,” he added.
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