Branstad orders end to confidential agreements

DES MOINES – State agencies will be prohibited from signing confidential settlement agreements with disciplined or fired state workers under an executive order signed Monday by Gov. Terry Branstad.

The order is Branstad’s response to criticism over agreements that state agencies reached with six dismissed state employees who were paid more than $280,000 to keep quiet.

While Branstad vacationed in Arizona last week, two state government controversies made headlines: the secret payments and allegations that the head of the Iowa Workforce Development, a Branstad employee, was improperly pressuring judges who hear unemployment cases to rule against workers and in favor of employers.

Branstad said he signed Executive Order 18 prohibiting state agencies from entering confidential settlement agreements on Monday. He said he knew nothing about the agreements, first reported in the Des Moines Register earlier this month, and called them ill-advised and unacceptable.

“Iowans expect more from government and Iowans deserve better,” he said.

Branstad, a Republican, said the agreements were reached after dismissed or disciplined employees filed grievances through a state public employee process that went to a mediator. Some of the workers terminated as part of a cost-saving reorganization of government allege they were let go because of politics; two were Democrats. A state investigation confirmed that two others were registered independent voters and two were Republicans, Branstad said.

“Employees were not terminated or targeted during reorganization based on political affiliation,” Branstad said.

The executive order says no executive branch agency, board, commission or officer shall enter into settlement agreements without review of the attorney general, the Department of Management director, the Department of Administrative Services manager, and the head of the agency involved. It also says no personnel settlements shall be confidential, requiring them to be posted at the state’s Administrative Department website.

“Confidentiality provisions that prevent disclosure of agreements are wrong,”Branstad said. “I am deeply disappointed that they were ever considered much less used.”

A dozen state agencies had agreed at some point to confidentiality agreements, Branstad said.

Jack Hatch, a senator from Des Moines who is running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, said “the governor continues to deny and deflect instead of leading, which is what governors are hired to do.”

“An executive order is a wholly inadequate fig leaf,” Hatch said. “A full investigation is needed.”

Branstad also released past agreements on the website Monday, which revealed 321 settlements have been reached in state employee matters since he returned to the governor’s office in January 2011. Of those, 24 contained confidentiality provisions, 10 had lump-sum agreements totaling more than $427,000. Individual agreements ranged from $4,000 to $110,000.

“What really galls me is when people are kept in the dark and as a result of it they suspect bad things are going on,” Branstad said, noting the attorney general’s office has reviewed the agreements and said there’s no indication any laws have been broken. “I don’t want bad things to be going on. I want people to know the truth.”

Also Monday, Branstad defended his appointed director of Iowa Workforce Development, Teresa Wahlert, who was criticized by Democratic lawmakers last week for allegedly improperly pressuring judges who hear unemployment cases to rule in favor of employers.

Branstad said he has confidence in Wahlert.

“I think it’s very unfair. I think these are partisan political attacks and I think she’s answered every one of them and answered them very satisfactorily and I’m very proud that she is one of our outstanding department heads,” he said.

The criticism was led last week by Sen. Bill Dotzler, of Waterloo, who sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Labor asking the agency to investigate whether Wahlert is violating federal laws requiring impartial administration of unemployment benefits.

Dotzler, who spoke on the Senate floor Monday in response to Branstad, compared Wahlert’s behavior in the department to bullying. He said employees of hers have described getting physically ill out of fear of losing their jobs.

He pointed out that Branstad has made ending bullying of children a priority.

“It can happen in an adult world when people have power over other individuals,” Dotzler said. “Nobody should have to put up with that.”

Wahlert and Branstad deny the accusations and say the department in its most recent review by the DOL received positive remarks and compliments for reducing the number of backlogged cases.