Reynolds accused of flouting 2017 openness law she pushed
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Gov. Kim Reynolds’ refusal to specify why she forced the head of the Iowa Department of Human Services to resign has prompted accusations that she’s violating a 2017 law requiring the state to disclose why it has fired employees or officials.
Reynolds was lieutenant governor and stood by then Gov. Terry Branstad when he signed the disclosure bill into law. Branstad had pushed for the bill, which Republicans included in a larger collective bargaining bill that reduced union rights for 180,000 public workers.
But after asking DHS Director Jerry Foxhoven to resign June 17, Reynolds has declined to specify the reason other than saying “there are several factors that went into this decision and I made the decision to go in a different direction.”
On Thursday, Foxhoven said he would file a whistleblower claim with the State Appeal Board, the first step toward pursuing a lawsuit against Reynolds and the state. Foxhoven alleges wrongful termination and retaliation for being ousted after objecting to a request to have his department continue funding the salary of Paige Thorson, deputy chief of staff for Reynolds.
Foxhoven, a former law professor, said he was pushed out after saying he wanted to get a legal opinion to be sure the arrangement was proper.
Reynolds has repeatedly said Foxhoven never raised concerns about the matter and isn’t being truthful. Foxhoven responds that it’s the governor’s staff that isn’t being honest.
Regardless of who is telling the truth, Reynolds may be violating the 2017 law that requires disclosures of the factors behind a state employee’s firing.
The law states that when “officials, officers and employees of government bodies” are fired or asked to resign as the result of a disciplinary action, the documented reasons and rationale must be publicly released.
The 2017 law does not offer an exemption for the governor.
A spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said the office has not issued a legal interpretation of how the law applies to the governor’s appointees.
When asked Tuesday why she feels she doesn’t have to comply with the law, Reynolds answered: “We have complied with the law.” She didn’t elaborate further on how she believes she’s complied.
Democrats have said Reynolds isn’t complying with the law and sought Government Oversight Committee hearings about Foxhoven’s ouster.
“Right now she is not following the law,” Senate Democratic leader Janet Petersen said. “Iowans shouldn’t have to play a guessing game about one of the top state officials running programs Iowans depend on. She should not be above the law.”
Republican legislative leaders rejected Democrats’ call for oversight meetings.
Senate Republican Leader Jack Whitver said he considers the Foxhoven matter closed. He said Reynolds should be free to select department directors to best implement her priorities. He didn’t directly respond to a question about whether the governor should comply with the disclosure law.
However, he debated a similar proposal on April 25, 2014, as Republicans were pushing to include the provision in an amendment to a Democratic Senate bill establishing new hiring procedures and expanding whistleblower protection for workers.
“This amendment would add that the public should know if someone has resigned in lieu of termination or if they were demoted in lieu of termination so it gives the public the entire story on what is happening with the terminations and settlement agreements,” he said. “Iowans have the right to know about the misconduct of state workers when it’s serious enough that they’re fired.”
The Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit consortium of newspapers, radio and television stations, educators and others interested in openness in government and First Amendment rights, contends the governor cannot ignore the law.
“She was part of the team when this change in personnel records law was made two years ago,” said Randy Evans, the council’s executive director. “If she disagrees with the premise, which was Gov. Branstad’s position on this change was based, she ought to share that with the public and be asking the Legislature to change the law rather than choosing to ignore the law.”
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