Staff Editorial

Leaders should shield taxpayers from settlements

The State of Iowa Law Library at the State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The State of Iowa Law Library at the State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

As clarifications go, this one was costly, and maddening.

Earlier this month, Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham said a $4.1 million state settlement paid to two women who say they were sexually harassed by former Iowa Finance Authority Director Dave Jamison would “not be funded by program or taxpayer dollars.” Durham oversees the finance authority.

But last week, Durham told lawmakers the dollars would come from state housing program funds. Durham conceded she “didn’t do a good job explaining” where the money would come from, according to the Des Moines Register.

So now we know Jamison’s misconduct will cost the state a large chunk of scarce housing dollars, money that could have gone to projects addressing critical housing needs. This comes after taxpayers covered a $1.75 million settlement with a former Senate Republican staffer fired after reporting harassment.

Women who step forward to report the misconduct they’ve endured should be compensated swiftly. But forcing taxpayers to repeatedly foot the bill for harassment settlements is unacceptable. Statehouse leaders must explore mechanisms that protect taxpayers and hold those responsible accountable.

State Auditor Rob Sand has argued the state should seek restitution from Jamison. We share his sentiment, although legal barriers could hamper such an effort. Lawmakers should see what can be done to clear those barriers in the future. If wages can’t be garnished, maybe a fired manager’s state pension income could be tapped to help repay settlements.

If restitution can’t cover the costs, perhaps settlements such as these could be paid using dollars from state reserves. That would avoid sapping funding for current programs. Maybe a small state employee payroll withholding charge could create a fund to pay future employee settlements. Or the state could potentially self-insure to cover compensation claims.

Whatever the policy, transparency and reducing taxpayer liability should be the objectives.

Of course, hiring quality managers, creating strict standards of conduct and rigorously training our public servants to follow those standards could halt misconduct before it starts. Changing a culture of political favoritism and cronyism in state agencies also would help considerably.

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But the sad fact is there likely will be more settlements. Cultural change takes time to sink in. In the meantime, our leaders have a duty to protect taxpayer dollars.

• Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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