DES MOINES, Iowa House Democrats on Monday called for expanding the Legislature's probe into alleged improprieties by the Branstad administration, including the authorization to call witnesses, administer oaths, issue subpoenas, make contempt cites and hire an independent investigator if need be.
Rep. Ruth Ann Gaines, D-Des Moines, a member of the House Government Oversight Committee, said the independent legal counsel was be asked to make recommendations for legislative action or prosecution as the probe unfolded.
Gaines, flanked by 10 House Democrats, said representatives will file a resolution directing the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee to expand its investigation looking into allegations of secret "hush money" payments included in confidential employee settlements, the closing of the Iowa Juvenile Home, the compiling of "do not hire" state employee data bases, and misconduct at Iowa Workforce Development.
"We can no longer count on the Branstad administration to provide accurate or timely information to lawmakers or the general public when allegations of misconduct arise," Gaines told a Statehouse news conference. "We feel it's time for the Legislature to investigate, get to the bottom of these scandals, and restore faith in our state government."
Branstad dismissed the Democrats' contentions as partisan politics at a time when lawmakers should be focusing on the priorities they need to address before adjourning the 2014 session later this month.
"This sounds like partisanship at its worst," Branstad told his weekly news conference. "What we really need to do is try to improve public policy instead of making all of these accusations using all these charged words. They ought to be sitting down and working with us."
If approved by the Iowa House, the House Oversight Committee would be authorized to call witnesses, administer oaths, and issue subpoenas. It also gives the committee power to hire independent legal counsel that would make recommendations for legislative action or prosecution.
"The people of Iowa deserve an unbiased, full investigation into hush money paid to state workers who were dismissed from their jobs, including firing and hiring practices as well as bonuses," added Oversight Committee member Rep. Curt Hanson, D-Fairfield.
House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, the leader of the House Republicans who hold a 53-47 majority, said if minority House Democrats were serious about bringing more transparency to the oversight process, they would have supported House File 2462, which he said "goes a long way to answering the question as to why these settlements occurred in the first place. Their resolution accomplishes nothing. It is simply a new act in the Democrats' political theater."
However, Gaines called the House bill "cover-up legislation and Rep. Vicki Lensing, D-Iowa City, who served on the Government Oversight Committee through investigations like the Iowa Film Office, Iowa Association of School Boards, and Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium (CIETC), said lawmakers are tasked with finding the facts, getting to the truth and protecting taxpayers' interests regardless of politic parties or partisan considerations.
Last week Paulsen and Senate GOP Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock told reporters they are concerned Democrats are trying to use the committee format as a "platform" to promote Sen. Jack Hatch's gubernatorial campaign.
"I think it's a very serious matter. I think questions need to be asked and answered. We're happy to participate in that, but the reality of it is that anytime we try to work on something together, they find an excuse to not do it together and instead create some sort of spectacle," Paulsen said. "It's pretty obvious what's going on there."
Both Paulsen and Dix praised Branstad's swift and decisive action in firing former DAS Director Mike Carroll when the governor found out that information he provided to the governor and the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee denying "pay for silence" agreements was inaccurate.
Hatch, who called the mounting allegations against the Branstad administration "a big mess," denied any connection between legislative oversight efforts and his gubernatorial bid. He told reporters Monday he would like to see Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and Branstad work in concert to get to the bottom of the issues that have been raised that are causing Iowans to "lose faith" in their government.
"The governor has been asleep at the switch and seemingly unable to know what's wrong in his administration before it's reported in the media," Hatch told reporters. "This is what happens when you have someone who's been in office too long and whose administration includes people who act above the law and abuse their power."
At about the same time Monday, Republican Party of Iowa chairman Danny Carroll said he is making an open records request seeking documents and emails of Hatch and Oversight Committee members Democratic Sens. Janet Petersen and Matt McCoy "to determine what, if any, political motivations are behind the Government Oversight Committee's investigation" into the Department of Administrative Services.
"This investigation risks becoming a farce if legislative Democrats fail to hold themselves to the same standards as the administration," Carroll said in a statement.
"It strikes me as disingenuous for Democrats to launch a partisan investigation while hiding behind 'legislative privilege' to never release their own communications," the Iowa GOP leader added. Carroll. "In the spirit of openness and transparency, I am formally asking these specific legislators to comply with the will of the people and turn over all pertinent documents."