Editorial: Secret deals in Des Moines


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News broke Tuesday that several U.S. Secret Service agents, stationed in Amsterdam to prepare for the president’s arrival, were sent home after a night of drinking that reportedly left one agent passed out in a hotel hallway.

The story was quickly made public as the Secret Service struggled to deal with another blow to its image. This story shares similarities with an ongoing investigation into government employee misbehavior and subsequent settlements in Iowa, with one major difference: These severance deals with public sector employees in Iowa were kept secret.

Originally unearthed by the Des Moines Register in a March 16 report, the settlements, 24 in all, reveal what appear to be efforts to silence whistleblowers, send off misbehaving employees, and keep potentially damaging accounts of improper conduct behind closed doors.

One employee received a settlement after accusing the state transportation agency of bypassing the formal bidding procedure for projects, and the employee ended up being transferred to another department. Another was paid off after being fired for failing to intervene in a case of abuse in the Iowa Juvenile Home. A different case involved a pharmacy director in the Veteran Home, who failed to respond to accusations of misconduct among those in the pharmacy, including an incident in which one employee was accused of placing a plastic bag over another’s head.

Most settlements go through the Iowa Appeal Board, at which claims against the state or employees are settled publicly. But these settlements, detailed in recently released state documents, circumvented that usual process.

According to the Register, all of the employees were asked to sign confidentiality agreements to keep their settlements private, an arrangement that Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said was “unacceptable.” At least 10 of the employees received lump sums that totaled more than $425,000.

“I wanted to make it abundantly clear that with my executive order, it’s illegal,” Branstad said at his weekly press conference Monday. “And if this ever happens again, there will be heads rolling.”

His strong reaction to the developing scandal is commendable, but his claims that he was unaware of the practice before the news broke call his leadership into question. Branstad posited that agency officials, coming from the private sector, brought the private sector’s way of making settlements with them.

A jury would have little sympathy for this kind of defense. Pleading ignorance of proper procedure, especially when the motive for the contrary is easy to see, is dubious at best. On top of assurances that these settlement practices will not be allowed in the future, Branstad needs to hold the officials responsible for them accountable.

Beyond the governor’s speculation, the real reasons behind the secret settlements still remain unclear. What’s at stake is more than just cover-ups of embarrassing employee behavior. These sorts of backroom dealings hark back to an era in which “transparency” wasn’t a term used in describing governments.

Branstad himself acknowledged this. “Iowans expect more from government,” he said. “Iowans deserve better.”

What Iowans deserve and what they are getting seem now to be two different prospects. Time will tell if these settlements are just simple lapses in judgment by agency officials or signs of a larger disclosure problem in Iowa’s government. Regardless, the opacity of these deals with state employees is deeply concerning.

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