Ousted Iowa director files $2M wrongful discharge claim
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The former head of the Iowa Department of Human Services is seeking $2 million for wrongful termination, claiming Gov. Kim Reynolds fired him for questioning whether the department should be paying one of her staffers to assist with the state’s Medicaid program.
Jerry Foxhoven was ousted from his job on June 17, a day after sending an email to 4,300 agency employees gushing about the late rapper Tupac Shakur, The Associated Press reported. Foxhoven later said he didn’t think his firing was related to that email, but rather, stemmed from his complaints about the Reynolds staffer on his department’s payroll.
Foxhoven filed the claim Thursday with the State Appeal Board claiming Reynolds, her Chief of Staff Sara Craig Gongol and legal counsel Sam Langholz terminated him for questioning whether it was legal for DHS to pay the salary of Paige Thorson, a governor’s office staffer and former DHS employee.
Foxhoven said he agreed to pay 69 percent of Thorson’s salary through from December 2017 through June 30, 2018 because she was assisting the state’s new Medicaid director manage the program.
Foxhoven said he discussed Thorson’s pay with Gongol in early 2019, telling her that Thorson, then the governor’s deputy chief of staff, was no longer performing duties for DHS and he did not believe the agency should continue to pay a portion of her salary.
In June, however, Foxhoven said Gongol informed him he was expected to continue the pay arrangement.
Foxhoven said he told Gongol he would seek legal advice because he questioned the legality of spending DHS money for a staffer no longer working for the agency.
Before he could contact the attorney general’s office he was called to the governor’s office on June 17 by Gongol and Langholz and told to resign immediately, turn over his state-assigned equipment and not return to his office.
Foxhoven said he was given no reason for his termination other than that the governor decided to go in a different direction.
He said the firing was done to prevent him from enforcing his legal right to disclose information he believed was a violation of law, mismanagement and an abuse of funds or abuse of authority.
He said he was fired “because he refused to engage in illegal activity; that is DHS continuing to pay Thorson’s salary despite the fact that she was no longer providing services that furthered the business of DHS.”
He said the firing violates well established public policy of the state defined in law, regulation and by court decisions.
“Defendants’ termination of Foxhoven’s employment was willful and wanton and done in reckless disregard of his rights, entitling him to exemplary and punitive damages,” the filing said.
Foxhoven’s attorney Thomas Duff said he plans to seek $1 million from the state and $1 million from Reynolds, Gongol and Langholz although the final asking will depend on how long Foxhoven is unemployed and how much a new job may offer in salary and benefits compared to his state job.
Foxhoven, who earned $154,300 a year, says he suffers a substantial loss of earnings and benefits, mental anguish and emotional distress.
The Iowa Attorney General’s office, which represents the state officials, has six months to decide whether to negotiate a settlement and recommend it to the State Appeal Board or take no action. If no action is taken Foxhoven can withdraw the complaint and file a lawsuit in state court.
Reynolds responded Friday with a statement repeating comments she has made before.
“As I have consistently shared with Iowans, many factors went into my decision to ask for Jerry Foxhoven’s resignation. My focus remains on the many Iowans that DHS serves, and I am committed to selecting a new director who will take this agency to the next level,” she said.
She has previously denied that Foxhoven raised concerns about the pay issue and said he never asked her staff for a legal opinion.