The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

April 3, 2014

Former state workers outline abrupt 2011 firing

DAVID PITT
Associated Press

DES MOINES — Four former state employees said Wednesday they doubt the state saved as much money as Gov. Terry Branstad and other officials have claimed from layoffs in 2011 as part of state government reorganization.

The workers, testifying before the Senate Government Oversight Committee, also claimed some of their jobs are now done by contractors at significantly higher cost. They said laws were broken in the way their dismissals were handled in what Sen. Matt McCoy called the Sept. 1 massacre, when a dozen workers at the Department of Administrative Services were suddenly laid off.

The workers contend their replacements were unqualified to perform the engineering and architectural jobs they held, that jobs weren't properly advertised, and replacements hired were friends or acquaintances of administrators at the Iowa Department of Administrative Services.

They were called to testify as an inquiry into settlement agreements with fired and disciplined state workers deepens at the Capitol. The Democratic-led Senate committee is trying to determine why state officials signed confidentiality agreements and in some cases paid cash for the workers to keep quiet. Republican members of the House Government Oversight Committee were invited but declined to participate.

More than 320 state workers have entered settlement agreements since the Republican governor took office in 2011, and more than two dozen were asked to sign confidentiality agreements. The total paid exceeded $500,000.

Five settlement agreements came from the Iowa Department of Administrative Services and were approved by the agency's director, Mike Carroll.

Ken Thornton, who was responsible for keeping the heat and lights on at the Capitol and many surrounding state buildings, said he managed $44 million in contracts and had 30 people answering to him. A change in management style came in after Branstad was elected in 2011, he said.

"I was never talked to so disrespectfully," he said of his new boss, Doug Woodley, who continues as the chief operating officer of General Services Enterprise at DAS.

Thornton said Woodley required him to write up his own job description "because he was going to hire another person to replace me."

The replacement lacked Thornton's credentials, which include boiler engineer certification. Thornton also is a licensed engineer and a biomedical engineer.

"It's my contention he was hired as a friend of Doug's," Thornton said.

Woodley wasn't available to comment.

In addition to that individual, Thornton contends some of his work is now performed by two private contractors, including one paid more than double Thornton's $90,000 annual salary.

He challenged his firing and through the grievance process reached a settlement agreement but refused to sign a confidentiality clause.

DAS spokesman Caleb Hunter said in a written statement that the department's director, Mike Carroll, spent 35 years in the construction industry and "knows how to deliver and manage construction projects in order to provide the best possible project at the lowest cost to the taxpayers."

"Prior to the reorganization DAS had limited technology and a paperwork heavy process that required multiple copies of each contract and six to seven signatures of state employees on each contract, change order or scheduling adjustment," he said.

He said the reorganization of the design and construction division resulted in three new hires to replace the work previously done by seven people.

He said DAS saves $730,000 a year in operational costs on construction projects. In addition he said the state saved $915,207 last fiscal year.

"Total savings on the entire state construction volume are projected to be in excess of $12 million," he said.

Tony Schmitz, an architectural engineering services employee for five years, was fired Sept. 1, 2011, at a time he was managing $15 million worth of construction projects.

He told lawmakers the state changed job titles so administrators could claim positions were eliminated, but some replacements made more money than the laid off workers.

He filed a grievance to regain his job but found another position by the completion of the process, so he took a $35,725 settlement.

"I wouldn't have been able to work under this administration," he said. "When they claim it was a reorganization, it was reorganized no doubt about it, but it wasn't in the best interest of the taxpayer by any stretch."

He was not offered additional money to keep his agreement quiet although the agreement did include a confidentiality clause.

Carol Frank, a mechanical engineer with 30 years of experience, lost her job at age 62. She fought to get her job back, but the state refused. She settled for just over $77,300 and was paid $5,000 to keep the agreement quiet.

"I took it. I felt lousy about it," she said. "I don't know that it was worth it. I just know that what they did wasn't legal at all and for me, I've never found another job."

Sen. Sandra Greiner, R-Washington, asked Frank if she's considered returning the $5,000 since she's now talking about the agreement.

Frank shot back: "If they want it back, I'll give it to them in pennies."

Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said the reasons employees with institutional knowledge were purged from state government will become clearer as further hearings are held Thursday. He suggested many were fired for political reasons and others because of personal and business connections between DAS officials and hired replacement workers and outside contractors.

Three DAS officials, including Carroll and Woodley, are scheduled to appear before lawmakers.