Undue influence or not? Clear it up

The Gazette Opinion Staff
Published: April 1 2014 | 12:01 am - Updated: 7 April 2014 | 3:01 pm in

By The Gazette Editorial Board

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Iowa administrative law judges’ job is to be a neutral decision-maker in cases involving state agencies’ whose actions have adversely affected Iowans. These judges are prohibited from communicating with any person about the facts or legal issues in a case, unless all parties are first notified and have a chance to participate and respond.

Last month, a state legislator raised allegations that judges who decide unemployment benefit cases appealed to the Iowa Workforce Development Department have been unduly influenced by the director, Teresa Wahlert, to favor the employer in some cases. Sen. William Dotzler, D-Waterloo, filed his complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor and requested that the federal agency, which pays the salary of these judges, investigate.

Dotzler released copies of emails and told stories about his interviews with workforce development employees that revealed a supposedly “hostile work environment” and that Wahlert allegedly had one or more judges develop “tip sheets” for employers to help them win favorable verdicts.

Wahlert has denied the allegations. Gov. Terry Branstad defended Wahlert after his administration conducted an apparently brief investigation.

No word yet from the U.S. Labor Department on whether it will follow up.

One thing for sure is that these allegations are very serious. All Iowans deserve a process that is fair and objective, whether an administrative law judge hears an unemployment case or, most commonly, appeals of decisions on driver’s license and human services benefits.

All administrative law judges should be concerned about Dotzler’s claims, for obvious reasons. And it’s fair to question why the judges hearing unemployment benefit cases are not under the umbrella of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, as other administrative law judges are.

This matter deserves more clarification and explanation. And if getting clear answers requires a federal investigation, so be it.

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