A key state legislator is seeking a federal investigation into Branstad Administration’s efforts to harass and improperly influence judges.
State Senator Bill Dotzler, co-chair of the Joint Economic Development Subcommittee, presented evidence at a Statehouse news conference focusing on the actions of Iowa Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert. Dotzler said the evidence shows that Wahlert is improperly pressuring Administrative Law Judges to rule in favor of employers and against employees in unemployment cases.
“In a legal dispute, everyone should be treated fairly and with respect,” said Dotzler. “That’s not happening. Branstad political appointee Teresa Wahlert has put herself directly in charge of Administrative Law Judges and is improperly—and I believe illegally—pressuring these judges to rule in favor of employers and against Iowa workers.”
In Iowa Workforce Development, there are federally funded administrative law judges who rule on disputes between employers and employees regarding unemployment claims. Under normal conditions, these judges are overseen by a chief Administrative Law Judge.
Dotzler released a letter he has sent to U.S. Department of Labor that calls on federal investigators to determine if Wahlert is violating federal laws requiring the fair and impartial administration of unemployment insurance benefits. In February, the Department of Labor concluded a similar review of Maine’s system for handling unemployment claims.
In Dotzler’s letter, he listed a number of specific concerns about Director Wahlert’s actions. They include:
- Director Wahlert created a hostile work environment for Administrative Law Judges who did not follow her pro-employer, anti-employee philosophy.
- Director Wahlert, a political appointee, became the direct supervisor of the Administrative Law Judges after eliminating the Chief Administrative Law Judge’s position.
- Director Wahlert directed the Administrative Law Judges to be involved with “outreach to community and business leaders” and required them to develop “tip sheets” to help employers win cases, actions which would interfere with their ability to impartially judge cases. Wahlert did not require anyone to create similar “tip sheets” to help employees in similar cases.
Dotzler drew attention to a similar case in Maine, where a federal review found that actions by conservative Governor Paul LePage put fair hearings at risk. In that case, US Department of Labor Regional Administrator Holly O’Brien wrote that:
“Under federal law, unemployment compensation appeal hearings must be fair and impartial, both in fact and appearance. Political interference or undue political influence, even in appearance, can potentially destabilize the appeals process, undermine the credibility of a state’s unemployment compensation program, and generate additional workload which may result in delays in decisions or benefit payments.”