CRG:Branstad reiterates no knowledge of secret settlements
DES MOINES - Gov. Terry Branstad and top staff members Monday again denied that they were aware that laid-off state employees were paid to keep silent about their settlement agreements before the practice came to light last spring.
Also during his weekly news conference, the governor said there is no concerted effort within his administration to avoid email or electronic communications as a way to skirt the state's open records law.
Ryan Lamb, former legal counsel for the state Department of Administrative Services, told a legislative committee last week that his former boss, ex-DAS director Mike Carroll, and at least two members of Branstad's staff knew about the settlements. But two top Branstad aides denied they had knowledge that the agreements had provisions to pay for confidentiality.
'I did not review, sign off, approve any of the settlement agreements that had confidentiality clauses in them,' Brenna Findley, Branstad's legal counsel, told reporters Monday. 'I didn't approve the use of confidentiality agreements in these settlement agreements at issue. I was not aware they were included in these agreements.'
Branstad said his chief of staff, Matt Hinch, met twice with Lamb during an internal review conducted by the governor's office and was assured no such confidentiality payments were made. However, the night before Carroll was to testify before the Legislature's Government Oversight Committee in April, Branstad said Lamb informed Hinch and Carroll that 'there may be an email showing money was paid for confidentiality, but he was not sure.' Carroll told the legislative panel that no 'hush money' payments were made but when an email from an attorney representing one of the laid-off state workers indicated otherwise, Branstad said he 'took decisive action' to fire the DAS director.
Hinch said a subsequent search of a DAS email vault uncovered information confirming the payment.
'Our office was not aware of confidentiality provisions within personnel settlements nor were we aware of any payments made for confidentiality,' Branstad said Monday.
Upon learning that 25 confidential settlements had been made - 10 with lump-sum payments - with dismissed workers since January 2011, the governor said he issued an executive order banning the practice within the state's executive branch and urged lawmakers to repeal an exception to the state open records law that keeps employee settlements secret.
During recent Oversight Committee proceedings, a pattern developed of Branstad administration officials being instructed not to use electronic communications or email regarding agency business. Branstad said Monday there is no policy or steps taken to avoid electronic interactions.
Findley said she has instructed and provided legal advice to the governor's staff that it is important to be professional and careful in emails and that any confidential information should be appropriately labeled.