State officials silent on agency-head departures and purged text messages

By: - July 29, 2021 1:54 pm

Domes at the Iowa Capitol. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

State officials are not answering questions about this year’s unexpected departure of the director of homeland security and they refused for weeks to address the departure of the head of the Iowa Veterans Home.

On May 7, Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office announced Iowa Veterans Home Commandant Timon Oujiri had been “relieved of his duties,” but provided no additional information on the change or why it was made. An audit report released Thursday indicates Oujiri was fired after failing to report that since 2019 he had collected more than $105,000 in excess compensation due to a payroll calculation error.

On May 10, the Iowa Capital Dispatch sent a formal Open Records Law request to Reynolds’ spokesman, asking for all written communications between Oujiri and the governor’s staff related to any “overpayments.” The governor’s office never acknowledged the request.

In 2017, Iowa’s Open Records Law was expanded to require that all public agencies disclose the “documented reasons and rationale” for either firing or demoting an employee, or for allowing an employee to resign in lieu of termination.

Because the governor’s announcement had said only that Oujiri had been relieved of his duties, without saying he had been fired, the Capital Dispatch attempted to confirm whether Oujiri was still an employee of the state and thus not subject to the law requiring disclosure on the reasons for termination.

On June 13, the news organization sent an email to the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, which functions as the state’s human resources department, asking for Oujiri’s “last day of employment at the Iowa Veterans Home” and asking when he was removed from the state payroll.

To date, neither DAS or the governor’s office have responded to that question or to any follow-up inquiries on the matter.

Questions unanswered about former agency head’s retention bonus

DAS and the governor’s office also aren’t responding to questions about former Iowa Department of Homeland Security Director Paul Trombino, who kept almost $17,000 in retention-bonus payments after remaining on the job just 19 weeks.

Reynolds appointed Trombino director of homeland security in January, then awarded him a $46,176 retention bonus, raising his annual pay to $158,246, well above the legally mandated salary cap of $112,070.

In a Feb. 9 letter notifying Trombino of his bonus, Reynolds’s chief of staff, Sara Craig Gongol, wrote that in accordance with Iowa’s administrative rules, Trombino was “required to sign an agreement to continue employment for a specified period of time following receipt of payment. A 12-month period of time has been deemed commensurate with the amount of payment you will receive.”

Earlier this month, the Capital Dispatch asked DAS for a copy of that signed agreement with Trombino. In response, the agency said it had no such document. The agency didn’t respond to further inquiries about why it doesn’t have a copy of the agreement or whether one was ever executed. The governor’s office also didn’t respond to questions about the agreement.

Agency has not answered questions related to text message request

Iowa Workforce Development has taken a similar approach to fielding questions about text messages sent and received by IWD Director Beth Townsend.

On May 19, the Capital Dispatch asked for access to Townsend’s work-related text messages since March 1. To ensure the records weren’t purged once the request was received, the news organization asked IWD to “take immediate steps to preserve all of the requested records” and to confirm that it had done so within two days.

The agency didn’t provide that confirmation and didn’t respond to five subsequent inquiries as to whether any effort had been made to preserve the records.

In June, an IWD lawyer told the Capital Dispatch that it attempted to locate the text messages not by looking at Townsend’s phone, but by requesting them from her phone-service carrier, Verizon, which told IWD that its copies of any relevant text messages would have already been purged.

Townsend and the IWD attorney never responded when asked why the text messages weren’t simply pulled from Townsend’s phone.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.