Records suggest fired veterans home head refused Reynolds’ offer of a pay raise

By: - August 30, 2021 1:58 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)

Six months before she fired him as head of the Iowa Veterans Home, Gov. Kim Reynolds offered Commandant Timon Oujiri a pay raise that he declined, according to newly disclosed state records.

The records, made public in a letter from Oujiri’s attorney, are not among the documents the governor’s office disclosed last week in response to a formal Open Records Law request made in May.

Reynolds fired IVH Commandant Timon Oujiri without explanation in early May after state officials concluded he 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, according to a report from the state auditor’s office.

After Oujiri’s firing was announced, the Iowa Capital Dispatch filed a formal Open Records Law request with Reynolds’ office, seeking access to all written communications between Reynolds’ staff and Oujiri about any overpayments. Reynolds’ staff did not acknowledge the request.

On Aug. 2, after an Iowa Auditor of State report disclosed the reasons for Oujiri’s dismissal, the Capital Dispatch wrote again to Reynolds’ staff, this time requesting copies of a “personal thank you note” Oujiri had sent to the governor and an email he had sent to Reynolds’ chief of staff. The request noted the governor’s staff had never acknowledged the larger, May 10 request for all overpayment-related correspondence with Oujiri.

On Aug. 23, the governor’s legal counsel, Michael Boal, wrote to the Capital Dispatch, and provided three documents: Two 2019 messages Oujiri sent to Reynolds and her chief of staff shortly after the unauthorized pay increase took effect, thanking them for the pay hike, and a May 2021 email Oujiri sent to the chief of staff hours before he was fired, saying, “I am very sorry for not questioning my increase. I am terribly sorry to embarrass you and the governor.”

Boal said the governor’s office was not withholding any documents relevant to either request for records about Oujiri’s overpayment.

However, he did not turn over to the Capital Dispatch two documents related to Oujiri’s pay. Those consisted of a handwritten note Oujiri sent to Reynolds on Dec. 21, 2020, four months before he was fired, saying, he was “humbled and honored” when offered a pay raise days before, and a second handwritten note sent the same day to Reynolds’ chief of staff, thanking her for a phone call in which he was offered the raise.

It now appears the governor’s office withheld a third document – an email dated Dec.18, 2020, that Oujiri sent to Reynolds’ chief of staff. It suggests the governor’s office was unaware of Oujiri’s actual pay when it offered him a pay raise that month, and that Oujiri refused it.

In part, the email says:

“Thank you for the phone call this morning. I am humbled, honored and very pleasantly surprised. Thank you. I would like to offer instead of my compensation increase, could we bump up Penny Cutler-Bermudez, Licensed Nursing Home Administrator, and Karen Connell, Operations Executive Administrator? They have worked tirelessly to ensure IVH has been successful in keeping our residents, staff and families safe.”

It’s not clear why that email wasn’t turned over by the governor’s office in response to the Capital Dispatch’s records request or why Boal stated that all of the relevant, requested records had been provided.

Oujiri’s attorney, Alison F. Kanne, who disclosed the Dec. 18 email, wrote that it was sent after Craig called Oujiri to “offer him another raise, even though at that time he was already, unknowingly, being overpaid.”

Kanne wrote that Craig “specifically stated to Colonel Oujiri in that phone call that the state had noticed that Colonel Oujiri was ‘not at the top of his pay scale,’ clearly undermining any claims that Colonel Oujiri intentionally and knowingly received overpayments at any point in time. Because she had determined that Colonel Oujiri was not at the top of his pay scale, she offered him another raise, which Colonel Oujiri turned down.”

Kanne wrote that Oujiri “was unknowingly overpaid by the state, and would have been even more overpaid by the state if he had accepted the second raise that the state offered him after the state specifically informed him that he was not at the top of his pay scale.”

She added that Oujiri had suggested that the December 2020 second raise be given to his staff instead “because he was satisfied” with his pay.

“That is the kind of man Colonel Oujiri is,” Kanne wrote. “He deserves far better than what happened to him due to the state’s own lack of awareness of what it is paying its employees. Any implication that he did something wrong by accepting money the state gave him, thanking the state for it in writing, and then turning down an additional proffered raise, after specifically being told he was not at the top of his pay scale, does Colonel Oujiri and this country a disservice.”

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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.