It took a while, but the governor’s secret settlement saga finally has reached the comforting “both sides do it” phase.
It’s been two-plus weeks since we found out that various departments within the Branstad administration approved confidential settlement agreements with departing employees. It turns out there have been 24 such settlements over the past three years, worth nearly $500,000.
These settlements sidestepped the normal process set out in Iowa law. Details were hidden from taxpayers and budget-writing lawmakers. Revenue sources meant for other uses were tapped to pay for them. Some former employees say the agreements were meant to hide the fact they were swiftly fired by the Republican-controlled executive branch without following nprmal protocols and for political reasons.
These revelations caught our governor on vacation. When he returned, he said he didn’t know anything about the deals until he read about them in The Des Moines Register. He swiftly issued an executive order barring future confidential settlements, which he called “unacceptable.” And yet, no one who signed off on them was punished.
Legislative Democrats, who call the settlements “hush money,” are holding hearings. Branstad denies that politics played a role, and although he’d love to explain, state law bars him from disclosing exactly why workers were fired. If that’s the case, why were confidentiality agreements needed? The $500,000 question.
Then he upped the ante, insisting that the state can’t even tell us about violent and abusive workers who have been fired. Wait. What? How many? “I don’t know, but there are a lot of them.,” he said. Seems like something he should know.
State laws need to be changed, Branstad said, so officials can tell us more about fired employees.
Then, on Tuesday, WHO-TV in Des Moines reported that former Gov. Chet Culver’s administration also agreed to eight confidential settlements. Republicans crowed. See, both sides do it. But only Branstad stopped it. After he read about it in the paper.
That is a relief. Because, clearly, what Iowans sought in the 2010 gubernatorial election was a switch from Culver with a D to Culver with an R. Sure, there was a lot of talk about a yearning for more competent, experienced, hands-on management after a period of embarrassing pratfalls and foibles. But maybe all Iowans really wanted was simply to have a governor with a mustache tell them he has no idea that something “unacceptable” is going on.
Actually, that’s not at all what Iowans wanted. They did want a chief executive who is on top of things. And the more times Branstad must publicly insist that he doesn’t know about problems, in his SUV doing a "hard 90," at the Toledo juvenile home, with these settlements, the more it appears to Iowans that maybe they didn’t get what they wanted when they gave him a fifth term.
Branstad says state law must be changed so he can tell us more about firings. I wholeheartedly agree. We deserve to know more. But that’s also what he said last summer after the DCI agent who reported Branstad’s speeding SUV was fired. And yet, neither his office nor his legislative allies filed any bills ahead of the 2014 session to change the law.
So unacceptable was actually acceptable. But at least both sides do it.