Oversight chair wants to hear from Iowa agencies that offered secret settlements, not employees

Joint meeting of House and Senate oversight committees set Thursday

James Q. Lynch
Published: April 2 2014 | 9:57 am - Updated: 7 April 2014 | 3:05 pm in

As his Senate counterparts prepared to hear from former state employees who were offered “hush money” to sign secret settlements ending their employment with the state, House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Kevin Koester said it’s more important to hear from the agencies involved than those employees.

“It’s my belief … the need to talk to workers on settlement offers of the past will not be important once we move forward with the bill and the other efforts to look at the agencies and not the fire employees,” the Ankeny Republican said Wednesday during a break in the committee’s meeting on a bill that would ban the sort of secret settlements made by the administrations of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad and Democratic Gov. Chet Culver.

He’ll get to hear from executives in the Department of Administrative Services during a joint meeting of the House and Senate oversight committees Thursday. Scheduled to appear are Director Mike Carroll, Enterprise Chief Operating Officer Doug Woodley, and Chief Resource Maximization Officer Paul Carlson.

The House Oversight Committee took up House File 684 to require that when an official, officer or employee resigns rather than be fired that information would be public record rather than confidential.

Under current law, only the fact that a person was discharged is considered a public record.

That’s enough public information, according to Democrats on the Oversight Committee.

“We think the law works as is and we don’t know what the necessity of the bill is,” said Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines, the ranking Democrat on the committee.

Terms of settlements are public, but the reasons for settlements have always been confidential, she said, “and that works best for everyone – the employer and the employee.”

“We don’t want to go any farther in disclosing the reasons for the settlement,” Gaines said. “The investigative part should remain confidential.”

Nor do the panel’s Democrats want to expand the scope of public information to include reasons why an executive branch employee was demoted as the result of disciplinary action even if that leads to questions among the public and fellow employees.

“Sometimes the questions are better than actually knowing because some things are very private in people’s lives,” Gaines said.

A provision of the bill stating it shall not be superseded by collective bargaining agreements raised another red flag for Gaines.

The bill also provides that personnel settlement agreements between the state and an employee shall not contain any confidentiality or nondisclosure provisions that attempt to prevent the disclosure of the personnel settlement agreement. In addition, the bill provides that any confidentiality or nondisclosure provision in a personnel settlement agreement is not enforceable.

Settlements would be made available to the public on an Internet site maintained by the Department of Administrative Services or Board of Regents based on the employee covered.

HSB 684 would take effect upon enactment and be retroactive to Jan. 1, 2004 – during the administration of Democrat Gov. Tom Vilsack. Koester said he thought a decade was long enough.

The bill does not apply to the legislative branch r the judicial branch. Koester said he has been told the legislative branch has never made secret settlements to terminate employees. David Boyd, state court administrator, said he is unaware of any secret settlements in the 30 years he has been with the judicial branch.

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