By DAVID PITT
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ A former chief judge for the state agency that hears unemployment cases said Tuesday he was fired because he stood up to his boss, who he said asserted her bias toward employers over workers.
Joe Walsh oversaw 15 unemployment appeals judges from 2010 until his dismissal in 2013.
On Tuesday, he told the Senate Government Oversight Committee that Iowa Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert pushed him to develop tip sheets to help businesses avoid paying unemployment benefits and took other steps that signaled she was inserting her personal political beliefs into the job.
“She instructed me to gather data on the judges to determine which judges were more likely to rule in favor of employers,” he said.
Walsh said he was initially hired as a merit employee, which protects certain state workers from being fired for political reasons. When he resisted some of her efforts, he was switched to an at-will employee, which means he could be fired at any time for any reason, he said. That move in April 2013 violated established legal principles that say judges must be insulated from political influence, Walsh said.
The U.S. Department of Labor, which funds a portion of unemployment benefits, requires judges who hear unemployment cases to have merit protection. The agency is investigating whether federal regulations were violated.
Walsh was laid off on July 15, 2013, and has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the state.
“Having a fair, unbiased system for resolving disputes is essential to stability in our society and it is what decent people strive for, regardless of our political leanings,” he said.
Walsh called on the Legislature to pass a law requiring judges to be free of pressure from political operatives and to appoint an independent counsel “to fully review all of the Branstad administration’s abuses of the administrative judiciary.”
Wahlert, who was appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad in January 2011 to run the IWD is scheduled to appear before the committee on Wednesday. Her spokeswoman said she wouldn’t comment before her testimony.
Branstad’s spokesman, Jimmy Centers said he couldn’t comment on Walsh’s allegations because of the lawsuit.
“Iowa Senate Democrats’ thinly veiled political circus is nothing more than election year grandstanding that is better suited for Washington, D.C.’s, toxic political environment,” Centers said.
Democrats chair the committee and have been investigating for months allegations of a hostile work environment at state agencies, questionable hiring practices and misallocation of funds in Branstad’s administration.
Six administrative law judges also testified Tuesday.
Among them was Susan Ackerman, who’s been a judge since 2000. She said an attorney representing a claimant on Monday asked her to recuse herself from a hearing and suggested that none of the department’s judges should hear the case “based on the perception that there’s political influence,” she said.
“We’ve got to get away from that,” said Marlon Mormann, who’s been an agency judge since 1990 and who describes himself as a lifelong conservative Republican. “It should completely nonpolitical. Please help us,” he said.