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Iowa panel likely to continue, broaden inquiry of executive branch payments, layoffs

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DES MOINES, Iowa — Senate Democratic leaders have made it clear their questions about government payments to former workers for secrecy and other state employment issues will not stop when the Legislature adjourns for the year.

While lawmakers appear to be on track to end the session within a few weeks, the Senate Government Oversight Committee is likely to keep pursuing the matter.

"We have no limit on the time were going to spend to get to the truth," Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said last week.

Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, who chairs the oversight committee said after she was forced to cancel meetings for two consecutive days last week because Iowa Department of Administrative Services executives declined to show up for hearings, she's ready to talk about issuing subpoenas to require testimony.

Petersen said Friday she has set the next hearing for Monday afternoon, and two of the DAS officials who didn't come last week have agreed to appear. They are Doug Woodley, DAS general services enterprise chief operating officer, and Paul Carlson, the agency's chief resource maximization officer.

House Oversight Committee members also have confirmed they will participate in the meeting, Petersen said.

Petersen is leading the investigation into why the DAS paid former workers to keep quiet about their settlements with the state. The workers, including some long-term state employees, were laid off shortly after Gov. Terry Branstad took office in 2011 and reorganized parts of state government.

More than 320 state workers since then have entered settlement agreements. More than two dozen were asked to sign confidentiality agreements. The total paid out in the confidential agreements exceeded $500,000.

DAS Director Mike Carroll, appointed by Branstad in 2011, told the Senate oversight committee on April 3 that no money was offered for silence in the agreements with former workers.

Last Tuesday a former worker released emails that clearly show a DAS lawyer offered her $6,500 to keep quiet about the settlement. Branstad fired Carroll that evening.

Carroll also told the committee the state did not blacklist former workers deemed ineligible for rehire by the state. On Thursday the DAS released a spreadsheet listing 975 workers who are disqualified from future employment after they were either fired or resigned before termination. The Associated Press had pursued the names for four months.

Branstad's spokesman Jimmy Centers insisted that there is no "list" and that each employee file is separate with a code that indicates ineligibility for rehire.

Petersen accused Carroll of misleading her committee in denying the existence of a do-not-hire list.

She said failure of a top Branstad appointee to tell the truth "raises concerns that there is more here than simply ignorance and incompetence."

Petersen said in an interview that many key activities of state government flows from the governor's office through the Department of Management and the Department of Administrative Services to the rest of government.

"It's like if you pee in a swimming pool no area is safe," she said. "That's what we're finding. If you have problems at the top layer of the administrative team it's seeping and flowing in through all these other departments and agencies into everything from hiring practices to procurement issues to construction contracts. It's a mess."

On Friday she was beginning to look over more than 400 emails she had received from the governor's office in answer to her open records request regarding the settlement agreements and other matters.

"The path for our investigation may not be 100 percent clear yet," she said.

Other lawmakers, including Gronstal, have spoken out about concerns that state workers have been dismissed for political reasons. During floor debate April 3 on an amendment calling for a state audit of the settlement agreements, Gronstal raised the question: "Did the governor, did the executive branch in fact dump state employees for political reasons? If in fact we discover that people in this administration that are still there and still perhaps doing this were involved we can impact that because we're here to govern not play politics."

Branstad, a Republican, has repeatedly denied political affiliation had anything to do with layoffs or settlement agreements.

Republican legislative leaders this week came to his defense.

"I think the governor is acting in good faith and I think he's shown leadership," said House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha.

He continued to assert Democrats are using the issue and the Senate oversight process as a platform to aid Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, in his campaign for governor.

Paulsen said Branstad has released all the information about confidential settlement agreements he can legally release.

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