DES MOINES – Senate Democrats closed out a politically charged, election-year session Thursday morning by offering a resolution granting investigative powers to issue subpoenas for witnesses to testify under oath in an ongoing probe of Branstad administration employment practices that included secret employee settlements.
The late-arriving Senate Resolution 121 would grant authority to the Government Oversight Committee through Dec. 31 to call witnesses, administer oaths, issue subpoenas, and cite and impose punishment for contempt – ranging from a $500 fine for an initial citation, $1,000 for a second or subsequent citation and the power to impose imprisonment for a period of up to six months.
“We do not enter this lightly,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, told members of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee. “We consider this a very serious subject.”
Democrats say they have been frustrated by the lack of information coming from officials within the state Department of Administrative Services and other agencies who have denied any knowledge of secret settlements with laid-off employees that included “hush money” payments for confidentiality.
Gov. Terry Branstad fired DAS Director Mike Carroll last month just hours after evidence surfaced that Carroll gave inaccurate testimony when he told lawmakers that no “hush money” was paid to ex-state workers.
Branstad has said he did not know that 25 confidential settlements — 10 with lump-sum payments — had been signed with dismissed state workers since January 2011 until the practice came to light in a newspaper story. In response, Branstad issued an executive order to bar confidential employee settlements going forward.
Gronstal said Thursday the Senate is using the subpoena power to its investigative arm “since nobody knows who authorized the secret settlements. We can't find out. We are going to find out.”
Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, said it was bad form for Democrats to wait until 5 a.m. in the early hours of a marathon shutdown to introduce the resolution.
“Is this how we operate government – wait until 5 in the morning and then come with something like this?” Chapman said. “That's real transparency.”
Republican members of the Rules committee when into closed-door discussions after the resolution was proposed. The issue is the last thing holding up adjournment of the split-control Legislature's 2014 session. Republicans who control the Iowa House dropped the final gavel on their 2014 work at 5:54 a.m. but the Senate continued its deliberations having completed work on a $6.972 billion budget for fiscal 2015 and the final policy pieces of this year's work.