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Watchdog: Accountability

Chairman: Terry Branstad staff pressured board on hires

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Associated Press,Watchdog,Watchdog Blog,Iowa,Accountability,Terry Branstad

DES MOINES, Iowa — The chairman of the state's Public Employment Relations Board said Thursday that two aides to Gov. Terry Branstad pressured the board to hire a friend of the administration, in the latest accusation that top government officials pushed to fill state positions with allies.

Board Chairman Jim Riordan told the Senate Government Oversight Committee on Thursday that Branstad's former chief of staff, Jeff Boeyink, and current staff attorney, Brenna Findley, threatened the board with budget cuts if it didn't hire Robert Wilson as an administrative law judge.

Branstad appointed Wilson, a Republican, as a district court judge in 1995.

Riordan, a former Democratic state senator, said Boeyink told members of the board they had better go along with hiring Wilson.

"He made it clear to us if we weren't willing to go along with this idea there would be serious consequences related to the budget," Riordan said.

The PERB board was established in 1974 as a mediator and arbitrator when there are disputes between workers and the government agencies for which they are employed. It handles many grievances from fired workers, among other issues.

The three board members are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate. It is designed to be autonomous so it can operate in a neutral fashion, said Riordan, who has served on the board for 14 years and as its chairman for 12.

Riordan said the office dynamics changed dramatically after Wilson arrived in November 2012.

"Everybody was on edge. We felt that he was put there to spy on us and try to guide outcomes," Riordan said.

Wilson did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday.

Questioned by reporters after the hearing, Branstad flatly denied the claims and accused Riordan, who wasn't reappointed by the governor, of making false accusations.

"I think it's kind of interesting that the day after his successor was confirmed to be on the board that Mr. Riordan, who's a former Democratic Senator, would make this kind of unfounded accusation," Branstad said.

Riordan was not reappointed by the governor, and his term ends April 30. Branstad's appointment to replace Riordan is Mike Cormack, a former Republican lawmaker and teacher who works as a lobbyist for the Iowa Department of Education.

Branstad said he has not talked to Boeyink, who now works for a public relations company or Findley about the accusations.

"I don't need to when I have members of my staff assure me that this didn't happen," he said.

Boeyink did not immediately return a call and the governor's spokesman, Jimmy Centers, said Findley was unavailable for comment.

Branstad said he didn't know Wilson was hired until after the fact. Branstad also insisted it was the board that hired Wilson and that he works as an at-will employee which means the board may fire him if they don't like his performance.

The board will now have two Republicans and an independent. The law creating the board says no more than two members may be of the same political party.

Riordan's comments came during the fifth legislative oversight meeting this month as part of an investigation that began when it was revealed that executive branch agencies paid more than $500,000 to former employees in confidential settlement agreements.

The investigation has branched out into state hiring practices and concerns that state employees such as Riordan have little protection to speak out against those in powerful government positions.

Senate Government Oversight Committee Chairwoman Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said a Senate bill is being drafted to provide improved whistleblower protection for people like Riordan and other workers who she said have contacted her complaining of harassment.

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