Iowa House votes to make more employee settlement information public

But Democrats fall short of complete ban on confidential agreements

James Q. Lynch
Published: April 8 2014 | 8:12 am - Updated: 8 April 2014 | 10:12 pm in News,

On a party line vote, Iowa House Democrats unsuccessfully tried to write Republican Gov. Terry Branstad’s executive order banning confidentiality agreements into law.

They suggested GOP-backed legislation to ban non-disclosure clauses in settlement agreements for public employees and make more information about personnel matters public was a rush to “sweep this Branstad scandal under the rug,” according to House Minority Leader Mark Smith, D-Marshalltown.

“Is this just a cover-up for another possible cover-up?” asked Rep. Phyllis Thede, D-Bettendorf, ranking Democratic member of the House Government Oversight Committee, during debate on a Democrats amendment to strip everything from House File 2462 except the governor’s executive order.

It failed 45-53, after House Government Oversight Chairman Kevin Koester, R-Ankeny, argued that if lawmakers “want to know who participated, when, who knew what when and to what they agreed and for what amount,” they should pass the bill in its entirety.

Later, 10 Democrats joined Republicans to pass the bill 63-35 and send it to the Democratic-controlled Senate, where passage is unlikely.

The legislation arose from revelations of 24 supposedly secret confidential settlements – 10 with lump-sum payments – with state employees who were terminated since Branstad returned to office in 2011.

Branstad, who said he was not aware of those settlements until seeing news accounts, issued Executive Order 85 to bar confidential employee settlements going forward.

That was good enough for Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines.

“I agree with the governor,” he said. “That’s the last time you’ll hear me say that – at least this year.”

Adopting Branstad’s Executive Order 85 would provide a “short-term fix” while the Legislature investigated allegations of “hush money” being paid to state employees to keep silent about their dismissals, Hunter said.

Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City, an Oversight Committee member for 12 years, called the legislation premature.

“Until we know long-term what our troubles are … it’s hard to create legislation that is more than a Band-Aid,” she said.

Koester agreed that HF 2462 does not incorporate everything that should go into a Government Oversight investigation.

“That’s not its purpose,” he said. Other legislation may become necessary as the Government Oversight Committee continues its investigation “so Iowans will know what public moneys were spent for.”

As amended, HF 2462 also would make public the documented reason and rationale in cases where a public employee is discharged, allowed to resign rather than be terminated or demoted.

House members agreed 98-0 to make the reason for bonus pay to state employees, as well as the amount of the bonus, part of the public record.

Sen. Jack Hatch of Des Moines, the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, said he has proposed a “much stronger bill” that addresses judicial and legislative branch employees as well as those in the executive branch.

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