Old Fashioned Cronyism Alive and Well in the Branstad Administration

If you’re keeping score, there have been many news accounts of the unfolding scandals around the Branstad Administration, but in this article we attempt to put all of the pieces together. 

What started as an investigation into employees who were terminated or resigned and received “hush money” settlements has now peeled back layers of other wrong doing in Iowa’s state government.   So what’s the latest?  Let’s sort all of this out. 

Is this a real “scandal?”
Yes, it is.  When Governor Branstad has to fire a top department director for lying to legislative committees and the people of Iowa, then that’s a scandal.  The question now is who else has been lying or committing wrong doing, and will the Governor fire them or take responsibility?

So what exactly are the accusations?
There are multiple allegations as this investigation has gone on.  We’ll start with the “secret” settlements. 

First, when Governor Branstad took office, his departments began to “restructure” state government.  This included reclassifying employees from “merit” positions to “at-will” positions, meaning they would be easier to fire.  Then, many of these employees were terminated, and with that many were paid settlement money so that they wouldn’t talk to anyone about what was going on.

Director of Department of Administrative Services (DAS) Mike Carroll testified to the joint House and Senate Oversight committees that he was in no way involved with any hush money payments.  This was immediately contradicted by documents that had his signature on them proving that he did know, and was then promptly fired by Governor Branstad.

Even more troubling through questioning by members of the Oversight Committee it has come to light that there very well could have been federal funds used to make these payments, something that would be illegal.  The state may have to pay the Federal Government back.   In addition, this practice went on through February of 2014, and that its total cost was (at the time of this writing) over $500,000 and was paid through accounts that cover construction management costs, efforts to make energy efficient, and general operations.

It has now recently come to light that our regents’ institutions have paid $1.16 million in secret settlement payments since 2011.

Ok, so DAS seems to have lied.  Why?
We’ll use DAS as an example of what has been going on in state government since Branstad has come into office.  In September of 2011, seven employees of DAS were let go.  These were project managers, architects, engineers, and other experts in vertical infrastructure.  DAS has admitted that these people that were laid off were 100% qualified to hold these positions, but just wanted new people in those positions.

Then, after these positions were eliminated, the Vertical Construction Advisory Committee within the department was disbanded, and the work of these people was turned over to a private construction management company to the tune of $11 million dollars. 

Oh and did I mention that Mike Carroll’s background is in the construction industry?  Iowa has now hired 990 jobs without properly posting these positions to the public.  This is important because it has allowed people across state government to hire their friends and business associates.  This is what is called cronyism, and it has no place in state government.  Cronyism is partiality to long-standing friends or business associates, especially by appointing them to positions of authority regardless of their qualifications.

I’ve heard about a “blacklist.”  What’s that all about?
DAS and the Branstad administration has claimed that there is no “do not hire list.”  Keeping a list for the purposes of denying others future employment with others is called a “blacklist,” and is covered under Iowa Code section 730.1.  That law primarily affects private sectors workers, and public employees deserve the same protections.  Either way, the state claimed that there is no list, and is not shared with anyone.

Then, the Associated Press asked for the list, and a list was furnished and released to the public for view.  It does not say why these people are on this list, and in addition it is deeply flawed considering current state employees are on this list.   In addition to existing state employees being on the list, some are awaiting grievance hearings and arbitrations according to President Danny Homan of AFSCME Iowa Council 61’s analysis.

The state claims that this wasn’t a list, it was codes on a computer.  That’s parsing words.  We live in a world that uses computers, and codes on a computer that can be run as a list is still a list. 

Let’s look at the Iowa Veterans’ Home’s blacklist.  The former Director there was accused of making sexist remarks and creating a hostile work environment for employees.  This led to his down fall, but of the 61 employees on that list, it is not surprising that 50 are women. 

This information was wrong to release to the public in the first place, and the list released was flawed at that.  There is now a lawsuit resulting from the blacklist and its release from people who were on it.

Didn’t Culver and Vilsack do this too?
Yes, but for different reasons and not on the scale that Governor Branstad has.  During Culver’s term we saw two settlements for $61,878 in lump sum payments to outgoing employees.  We also saw under Vilsack a total of 5 settlement deals in his eight years in office.  These settlements were done within the normal grievance procedure.  What we know now, is that during the past four years of Branstad we have seen (so far) dozens of settlements totaling (so far) over half a million dollars in payments.  The scale and purpose aren’t even comparable.

So is anyone taking responsibility?
So far, no.  Everyone from DAS, as well as the Governor and anyone else in state government has said that they knew none of this was going on.

What other things are being investigated?
It has been alleged by outgoing Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) chairperson Jim Riordan that the Governors’ office pressured him to hire an employee, and that if they did not hire this employee, the PERB budget would be severely impacted.  Riordan was not appointed to his position again, and the PERB board now has two Republicans, and an independent who worked at a Republican US Senate candidate’s law firm.

It has also been alleged that in Iowa Workforce Development, the Administrative Law Judges that handle Unemployment Appeals are being pressured to make pro-employer decisions by Director Teresa Whalert, and that she now directly oversees this work.  Senator Bill Dotzler has asked for an investigation into this by the United States Department of Labor.

It is also reasonable to believe that not everything has been uncovered about the mismanagement and cronyism in Governor Branstad’s administration, and more is to come.

This sounds horrible.  What do we do now?
The Iowa House passed a bill (the day before Director Carroll was fired) to open up all state employee discipline or personnel records for view to the entire public.  That legislation would have done nothing whatsoever to help solve the problem, and it was not taken up by the Senate.  Senate Democrats passed a bill that focused on whistleblower protections, bonuses, examination of contracting construction services, and more.  That bill was not taken up by the House. 

The very last act of the Iowa Senate was to pass SR 126, which gives the Senate Government Oversight Committee subpoena power and the ability to hold witnesses in contempt.  They may cite a witness for contempt and impose a $500 fine for the first violation and a $1,000 fine and imprisonment for up to six months for subsequent violations.

Will this get us closer to the answers?  We certainly hope so, but a bigger problem still looms.

In the end, what we’re really doing here is treating symptoms of a broken system.  The political parties involved here don’t necessarily matter, though most of these practices started under Branstad twenty years ago.  We have a political system where money rules, gives those interests a bigger voice in government, and in this case, allows cronyism by giving people actual seats in important places in State Government.  That doesn’t mean that Branstad’s administration deserves a free pass, far from it.  It just means that sadly, this is business as usual at so many levels of our political and electoral systems.

Get involved in movements and activities that seek to fight back against the corporate purchase of our government, and take a stand.  Demand more accountability from Governor Branstad and his administration.  Let him know at the ballot box.  However, until we tackle the bigger problem of meaningful campaign finance reform, we’re doomed to repeat this entire exercise again.  gov blamestad


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