UPDATED: DES MOINES — A Democratic senator Thursday accused Branstad administration officials of playing “rope-a-dope” stalling tactics to avoid answering lawmakers’ probing questions about confidential employee settlements in the closing weeks of the 2014 legislative session.
Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said he was “terribly disappointed” that top officials in the state Department of Administrative Services indicated scheduling conflicts forced cancellation of their appearances Thursday afternoon before the Legislature’s Oversight Committee.
“I’m told they’re being directed to stall, stall, stall, to not come in, to play the clock, rope-a-dope, that’s their game,” McCoy told his colleagues during a Senate floor speech. “I’m going to tell them I’m going to be here waiting. I’m patient. I’ll wait, but they’re going to have to come in and the longer I wait, the more impatient I get, the more this becomes adversarial, and I think they’d rather have me be reasonable than adversarial.”
Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, chairwoman of the Oversight Committee, said she rescheduled hearings for three days next week after being told DAS Director Mike Carroll was “out of town” for the rest of the week and would be unavailable to meet with the Oversight Committee until next Thursday. She said the bipartisan panel of House and Senate members would hold hearings Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on the secret settlements that were paid without Gov. Terry Branstad’s knowledge.
On Monday, a visibly angry Branstad announced that 12 separate state agencies had entered into 24 secret settlement agreements with employees topping $427,000 – a practice that he called unacceptable and declared would not happen again in his administration.
“I wanted to make it abundantly clear by my executive order it’s illegal and if this ever happens again, there are going to be heads rolling,” Branstad told reporters at his weekly news conference.
The governor said he had a long discussion with Carroll – who came from the private sector where such confidential employment agreements are utilized – about the inappropriateness of such secret pacts in the public sector.
To make sure that similar mistakes do not happen in the future, Branstad said he signed an executive order to increase accountability, openness and transparency of employee settlements after his administration conducted an internal review that uncovered a “practice of keeping information from the taxpayers” that he called “unacceptable and wrong.”
However, McCoy said Thursday he was concerned the action of Branstad administrators were an indication that the governor and his top officials hope the questions will go away as the split-control Legislature pushes to adjourn in April.
“I know the governor would like to end it with the executive order and sweep it under the rug,” McCoy said. “But the Oversight Committee does check the governor. I have news for Gov. Branstad that we do have a job to do here, an oversight job.”
Caleb Hunter, spokesman for the state Department of Administrative Services, said department officials told the Oversight Committee that DAS officials will be available to meet with them next week.
“Unless Senate Democrats plan on approving a budget and adjourning for the year, tonight, DAS officials will be available to answer any questions they may have at the time they schedule a committee meeting next week,” he said.
Petersen said she still has not received information about the confidential employee settlements and where the money to pay the $427,040 came from in the state budget that she requested from DAS officials.
“I’m hoping that DAS will cooperate,” she said.
Later Thursday, Petersen said she had expanded the committee’s investigation into “hush money settlements” provided to former state employees.
In a letter to the governor, Petersen said she has requested “copies of any and all emails, fax transmissions and phone logs (cell, office and fax)” involving Branstad, his top employees and all department heads who signed the so-called “confidential nondisclosure clauses.”
Petersen said she also requested details of the Branstad administration’s 2011 DAS reorganization, including job descriptions for both eliminated and created positions, as well as related candidate recruitment efforts and documents related to the selection process and costs for service contract providers the department has entered into agreement with following its reorganization.
Petersen asked that the governor’s office deliver the information within five days. She said officials at the state Department of Administrative Services failed to respond to a similar March 18 letter from the Oversight Committee.
Sen. Sandra Greiner, R-Washington, an Oversight Committee member, pledged her bipartisan support for the committee’s effort to get answers from the Branstad administration and hoped the process would not become adversarial in “drawing a fair conclusion.”
“I’m deeply interested in getting to the truth and getting the information that we need,” Greiner told senators during a floor speech. “I think it’s a very serious issue and one that we do need to get to the bottom of. But we have to have all the information. We have to have everything before we can draw conclusions. There’s no way we can come to a reasonable, rational conclusion without all the information.”
House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said House Republicans are willing to participate in Oversight Committee hearings if they are focused on producing good public policy. He said they are not interested in participating in a “charade” aimed at aiding Des Moines Democratic Sen. Jack Hatch’s 2014 gubernatorial bid against Branstad.
“If it about getting to the bottom and getting to the answers that are still outstanding and making sure that good public policy is taking place, absolutely,” Paulsen told reporters during his weekly news conference. “If this is about another one of these campaign events, then, no, that’s not what the people of Iowa pay us to do.”
For his part, Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said it appeared Branstad’s agency officials needed time “to get their stories straight” given “this web of issues” confronting the administration.
“There is stuff going on there that I think most Iowans are outraged about, taking taxpayer dollars and using it to buy confidentiality,” Gronstal told his weekly news conference. “If the need some time to get their act together, we will give them time to get their act together and their talking points and rehearse what it is they are going to say. We will get to the bottom of this.”
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