By RYAN J. FOLEY
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) _ Iowa’s human resources agency has released a list of hundreds of former workers who are barred from ever returning to state employment, days after the department’s now-fired director repeatedly told lawmakers no such list existed.
A Department of Administrative Services spreadsheet identifies 975 workers who are disqualified from future employment because they were either fired or resigned before termination, dating to 1990. The majority are barred from working again for the 42 executive branch agencies, while a small number are disqualified from specific departments or jobs.
The department released the data to The Associated Press following a four-month push for access through the public records law. Four days earlier, then-DAS Director Mike Carroll told lawmakers: “There is no `blacklist’. There is no `do-not-hire’ list. There is no list.” Carroll was fired Tuesday, hours after the list’s release.
The AP reported last month that Iowa’s executive branch, for two decades under three governors, has continued a little-known practice of banning some fired workers despite questions about the legality and fairness. The spreadsheet shows the practice is widespread, affecting everyone from social workers to corrections officers to prison chaplains.
The list doesn’t explain why each was fired, which is confidential in Iowa. Some listed employees committed previously reported misconduct, including a guard who kicked an inmate, a public safety employee who misused a police database, and civil rights investigators who traded inappropriate emails.
But the list also includes whistleblower Nancy Brady, who claims she was fired from the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy in retaliation for exposing inappropriate and threatening workplace behavior by assistant director Mike Quinn. Brady recently asked DAS whether she was on the list, but didn’t get a response until after the AP told her she was.
“I wonder why I would be blacklisted after Mike Quinn threatened to slit my throat and he’s still working,” Brady said, referring to a comment taped by Brady for which Quinn was reprimanded.
Administrative law judges have ruled three times since 2009 that Iowa doesn’t have the authority to issue blanket lifetime bans, only the discretion to disqualify ex-employees on a case-by-case basis if they apply for another state job. Instead of ending the practice, DAS stopped notifying workers when they’re put in “exclusion status” and does so now only if they reapply.
Applicants can appeal their disqualifications, but have rarely been successful in recent years. Even winning an appeal doesn’t remove you from the list: Six former employees whose bans have been lifted by judges or rescinded by the department remain on it.
DAS spokesman Caleb Hunter said those rulings didn’t compel the department to remove them from exclusion status, only to technically disqualify them at the point they apply again. He said the department’s procedures comply with Iowa code.
Critics, including Iowa’s largest public employees union, said the practice amounts to a blacklist that’s unfair and open to abuse.
In testimony last week to the Government Oversight Committee, Carroll emphasized there was no actual list, but that some fired workers had codes added to their computerized personnel files that would alert agencies of their disqualification if they reapplied. He said there was no way to tell whether specific individuals were disqualified until then.
Carroll also assured Gov. Terry Branstad and lawmakers that no state employees were paid to keep legal settlements confidential. Carroll was fired after documents surfaced disproving that claim.
Sen. Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines and committee chair, said Carroll misled lawmakers about the list, and that the AP’s disclosure will fuel more questions during the committee’s investigation of personnel practices. She demanded in an email Thursday that DAS immediately share the list with committee members.
“How are they making decisions on who should and should not be on the list and what types of checks and balances do we have in place?” she said. “There may be reason to have someone disqualified from state government.
“But this just can’t be a list where they can blackball people and inject their own opinions that affect Iowans’ livelihoods.”
Carroll didn’t return a phone message left by the AP. Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers said the records are individually maintained in a state computer database, and the department pulled the data requested by AP to create the spreadsheet.
“There isn’t some list that we’re manipulating every single day,” he said.
The AP requested the data Dec. 24, following a trial in which a state employee claimed she was unfairly on the list without her knowledge for years. Versions of the list were entered into the public record in her case, but sealed at the state’s request in January.
DAS initially claimed the request would require 280 hours to remove confidential information and cost the AP $11,565. After the AP protested and renewed its request, DAS reversed course and released the spreadsheet for free. But the department withheld names of roughly 675 fired probationary and at-will employees, claiming they’re not public record.