Fired vets home head thanked Reynolds, staff for pay raise in 2019

Audit reported Timon Oujiri was fired in May for accepting payment above state limit

By: - August 5, 2021 4:14 pm

Former Iowa Veterans Home Commandant Timon Oujiri was relieved of his duties earlier this year. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS press conference on Dec. 22, 2020)

Two years ago, the head of the Iowa Veterans Home allegedly wrote to Gov. Kim Reynolds and her chief of staff, thanking each of them for an unauthorized pay raise that contributed to his abrupt firing in May of this year.

The governor’s office has said Reynolds acted immediately on the pay-raise issue and fired IVH Commandant Timon Oujiri in as soon as she learned he was being paid more than what Iowa law allows.

The Iowa Auditor of State’s Office recently reported that Oujiri had collected $105,413 in improper, excess compensation since 2019. The excess pay and benefits were paid out as a result of Oujiri’s timesheets incorrectly showing 112 hours, rather than 80 hours, worked in each two-week pay period.

After the audit report was released last month, Alison Kanne, an attorney for Oujiri, wrote to Auditor of State Rob Sand and asked why his report made no mention of the fact that Oujiri had sent personal notes of thanks to the governor and to her chief of staff, Sara Craig, thanking them for the 2019 pay raise.

In her letter, Kanne said a note sent to Reynolds was in direct response to “the pay raise at issue here.” She said the note and other records show the state had been “put on notice” of Oujiri’s pay raise two years ago.

A thank-you note allegedly sent by the former head of the Iowa Veterans Home to Gov. Kim Reynolds in August 2019, just days after he received an unauthorized pay increase. (Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Two of the thank-you notes allegedly sent by Oujiri are dated Aug. 2, 2019, just days after the unauthorized pay increase kicked in. The first, a handwritten note to Reynolds, reads in part: “I am honored and humbled every day to be a member of your administration. I am privileged that you have entrusted me with the leadership of our Iowa Veterans Home. I am truly grateful for the increase in my base salary. Thank you.”

An email Oujiri allegedly sent that same day to Craig reads: “Good morning thank you for your support of me. I truly appreciate the confidence in my increase. Wishing you a great weekend, Timon.”

Another handwritten note Oujiri allegedly sent to Reynolds is dated Dec. 21, 2020, four months before he was fired. It reads: “I am deeply humbled and honored when Sara called to inform me of my salary increase. Thank you. I am honored by your trust and confidence in me. Thank you. Wishing you and your family a blessed and merry Christmas. Very respectfully, Timon.”

A third handwritten note, also dated Dec. 21, 2020, was allegedly sent by Oujiri to Craig and reads, in part, “Thank you for the phone call last Friday informing me of my salary increase,” suggesting the pay hike referenced in the two 2020 messages is unrelated to the unauthorized pay increase of 2019.

Governor’s office has not responded to records request

In early May, a few days after Oujiri was fired, the Iowa Capital Dispatch filed an Open Records Law request with the governor’s office, seeking access to all “written communications the IVH commandant had with Sarah Craig and the rest of the governor’s staff (including the governor) on the overpayment issue,” and specified emails as well as any “handwritten or typed messages.”

Reynolds’ office did not respond to that request and did not turn over any records.

On Monday of this week, the Capital Dispatch asked Reynolds’ spokesman, Pat Garrett, why the governor and her staff didn’t act on the pay-raise issue after receiving Oujiri’s messages.

In response, Garrett said that “as soon as the governor’s office became aware that Oujiri was being paid far above his statutorily defined salary, we took immediate action.” Garrett did not elaborate or respond to follow-up questions.

Sonya Heitshusen, public information officer for the Auditor of State’s Office, said in a written statement that the “office was aware of the issues raised by Mr. Oujiri’s attorney and the auditor’s office stands by its report.”

The auditor’s office initially refused to release a copy of Kanne’s letter, but did so Thursday after receiving permission from  Oujiri’s legal representatives. The copies of Oujiri’s email and handwritten notes were obtained elsewhere by the Capital Dispatch.

According to the auditor’s report, Oujiri’s unauthorized pay increase took effect in July 2019 and instantly raised his annual compensation to $172,682, which was far in excess of the $128,890 maximum salary for the job.

The audit report says officials with the governor’s office met with Oujiri on May 4 to discuss the overpayments. During the meeting with the governor’s staff, Oujiri “acknowledged he had been overpaid since the summer of 2019,” the report says.

It adds that “Oujiri also reported during the meeting he definitely noticed his pay was too much in the summer of 2020. According to representatives of the governor’s office, Mr. Oujiri stated he was ‘too embarrassed’ to say anything about the overpayment. In addition, when Mr. Oujiri was asked whether he knew the overpayment had occurred, he initially stated he believed the increase was to put him “on par” with other directors. However, upon further questioning, he reported he knew the pay was too high and stated that he ‘thought about calling, but didn’t.’”

Prior to June 2019, the number of default hours in the payroll system for certain state agency directors was set to 56 hours per week, calculated as eight hours per day, seven days per week, or 112 hours per pay period.

Beginning in June 2019, the effective hourly wage rate for these individuals was recalculated based on an 80-hour pay period. While this increased their effective hourly wage, their biweekly gross pay should have remained unchanged. In a July 2019 email to all personnel assistants in various state agencies, state human resources officials stated the number of hours recorded for employees with a default of 112 hours per pay period was to be changed to 80 hours per pay period.

However, the IVH workers responsible for entering hours in the payroll system told auditors they did not recall receiving the notice. It appears a member of the IVH payroll staff overrode the number of work hours credited to Oujiri, changing it from 80 hours back to 112 hours for each pay period from July 2019 through April 2, 2021. The net effect was an unauthorized increase in the amount of Oujiri’s paychecks from $4,646 to $6,642.

“Because Mr. Oujiri was aware of the maximum allowable salary for the position, it should have been clear to him the pay increase he received beginning with the pay period ended July 11, 2019 was not appropriate,” the auditor’s report states.

Three months ago, while preparing to transfer to a new payroll system, Department of Administrative Services employees reviewed various agencies’ payroll information for accuracy  and compared the facility’s authorized payroll amounts to the amounts actually paid and discovered there were discrepancies related to Oujiri dating back to June 2019. The issue was reported to the governor’s office and, after further review, Reynolds fired Oujiri on May 5, with no public explanation offered.

Oujiri was appointed commandant of the IVH by then-Gov. Terry Branstad in May 2017. As a salaried employee, he was to receive the same gross wages each pay period regardless of the amount of time he worked within each pay period.

Copies of the recent audit report have been filed with the Division of Criminal Investigation, the Marshall County and Polk County prosecutors’ offices, and the attorney general’s office.

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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.