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DES MOINES – The outgoing leader of Iowa's Public Employee Relations Board alleged Thursday he was pressured by Gov. Terry Branstad's top aides to hire an administrative judge who would be pro-employer in workplace disputes – a charge the governor called unfounded and politically motivated.
PER Board Chairman Jim Riordan, a former Democratic state senator from Waukee, told members of the Senate Government Oversight Committee he feared for his livelihood and his board's future funding if he did not go along with a demand to add Robert D. Wilson as a PERB administrative law judge.
"I felt that there was a gun to my head, you know: 'Do this or you're going to have big consequences,'" said Riordan, who is slated to leave his $96,500-a-year state post on April 30 after 14 years.
Riordan said Jeff Boeyink, Branstad's former chief of staff, and the governor's current legal counsel Brenna Findley threatened to reduce PERB funding if the three-member board did not hire the former Polk County district judge to a state post that considered employer-worker complaints. He said all the communications were verbal and there was no "email trail" so it would only be other board members who could corroborate what transpired.
In hindsight, Riordan said, he wished he would have "faced up to my fear" and resisted the pressure but he didn't because he feared that the board's staff would be reduced and salaries would be cut. The aftermath was a work environment filled with negativity and tension once Wilson joined the staff, he said.
Shortly after the two-hour Oversight Committee hearing concluded, Branstad's office issued a statement refuting that either Boeyink or Findley "pressured" PER Board members to hire Wilson, noting he was an at-will employed who could be removed if the board wasn't satisfied with his work.
"I think it's very disappointing that somebody who didn't get reappointed to the PER Board would make these kinds of false allegations," Branstad told reporters after a Statehouse proclamation signing ceremony Thursday afternoon.
"I think it's kind of interesting that the day after his successor was conformed to be on the board that Mr. Riordan, who's a former Democratic senator, would make this kind of unfounded accusation. This kind of politics I think really doesn't have any place," the governor added.
To further refute Riordan's testimony, the governor's office noted that PERB's budget was increased from $854,386 to $1,057,871 effective five months before Wilson's hire and is $290,549 higher than it was in fiscal 2010. Branstad's staff also voluntarily released all emails from Boeyink, Findley and PERB members to show there was no "pressure" to hire Wilson or attempt to influence decisions.
Riordan's charge that his board was forced to hire a judge who had been hand-picked by Branstad's staff came as part of an ongoing legislative look at state hiring practices, contractual arrangements and employee settlements paid to laid-off state employees – some including pay-for-silence confidentiality agreements that drew an executive order from Gov. Terry Branstad and resulted in the firing of former DAS Director Mike Carroll.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said the unfolding revelations and the governor's responses have convinced majority Democrats that they have to keep digging "to get to the bottom of this."
Responding to Branstad's pronouncements Thursday, Gronstal said: "Unfounded like the fact that his department director lied to him and his committee? At this point we do not trust the governor when he says something is unfounded. That's convenient for the governor to say it's partisanship. Well, this partisanship led to him thinking it was necessary to fire his department director."
GOP lawmakers continue to call on the Democrat-run Senate to take up House File 2642, a bill designed to expanding openness, transparency and accountability in state government by making provisions of Branstad's recent executive order in response to the secret settlement revelations part of state law.
"We have five days left in this legislative session. We can work together and bring forward bipartisan legislation to protect workers and create a more transparent government. Or, we can continue to play to the cameras, sling mud and fail to act," said Senate GOP Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock.
"Senate Republicans are ready to act. We understand Iowans deserve solutions, not showboating," Dix said during a Senate floor speech Thursday.
During Thursday committee hearing, senators also heard testimony today from Michelle Minnehan, DAS human resources enterprise chief operating officer, who explained the appeal process former state employees can use if they discover they're wrongly on a "do not rehire" list and want their names removed.
Minnehan also said about 2 percent of the workers in the executive branch of state government who had been classified as "merit employees" have been reclassified as "at will" employees, meaning they can be fired at any time.
Often those positions aren't advertised or posted, which she said was best practices, but she noted that referrals also are an accepted way to recruit employees. Minnehan said her past association with DAS administrator David Woodley led to her being referred for her current $130,000-a-year position.