By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. – The state human services department’s decision to tell 561 state employees the state auditor looked at their personnel files didn’t just anger the state auditor, it also upset a top administrator in the state department.
Emails obtained by Nebraska Watchdog under the state open records law show that Jodi Fenner, director of the division of developmental disabilities for the state Health and Human Services department, was angry after learning the letters went out after the fact.
After the state auditor’s office reviewed two years’ worth of personnel files of 561 current and former HHS employees in July and August, HHS officials sent a letter to the employees telling them about it. The letter from CFO Matthew Clough concluded by saying, “I regret this intrusion to your personal records.”
State Auditor Mike Foley has said it’s not unusual for his office to review personnel records as part of an audit, and suggested HHS might be playing politics. Clough has responded by suggesting Foley might have been motivated by politics, too, since he has vowed to take the department apart “brick by brick” during his campaign for governor.
But the letters to employees also angered Fenner, who learned of them after phone calls from worried employees. She was chief legal counsel for HHS before being named to her current position in July 2009.
“I am not pleased that you have been aware of this for two weeks and gave us no heads-up,” Fenner wrote in an email to Clough, HHS Chief Executive Officer Kerry Winterer and other HHS employees. According to other internal emails, HHS had made the decision to send letters to employees three weeks prior but was forced to move up the timetable after the Omaha World-Herald began asking questions. The World-Herald agreed to hold its story until Monday, and HHS sent the letter the Friday before.
“I am not concerned about the auditor looking at the personnel files,” Fenner wrote. “I am concerned about the contents and tone of the communication you sent. If the intent of your letter was to merely notify staff their records had been reviewed by the auditor, then I would definitely call this a miss. … I really don’t think it would have been to (sic) terribly hard to provide us with better communication.”
Fenner said the letter confused employees and was poorly written.
“I am shocked at its content and how intimidating it was to staff,” she wrote in an email to Clough, Winterer and others. She asked for a list of everyone in her division who received a letter so she could start reaching out to them, saying, “We risk losing good qualified staff if we do not act on this.”
Clough said in an email to Fenner and others that the decision was made to send out letters to employees because unlike previous auditor’s reviews of personnel files, this review wasn’t linked to a “specific record dealing with a specific incident.” It was a blanket review of all personnel records with a disciplinary action over the past 24 months.
Last week on KLIN’s Drive Time Lincoln show, Foley said personnel files are routinely reviewed to see if any “weaknesses” should be “explored further.” He said the files reveal everything from million-dollar errors to smaller mistakes, and now that the files are available electronically, auditors can retrieve the files rather than rely on HHS officials’ word.
This time, he said, the personnel files were reviewed in connection with three audits of the department.
“This is all about some people at HHS and maybe elsewhere within state government getting a little bent out of shape because I’m doing my job very effectively and very thoroughly and using the technology that’s available now that these records are in an electronic format,” Foley said on KLIN.
Foley and Gov. Dave Heineman have clashed over Foley’s scathing audits of state agencies, with the governor slashing Foley’s budget last session in what Foley suggested might be retribution.
Foley called the decision to send a letter to employees “peculiar” and said he’s learned some letters were sent to terminated employees and those who never had a disciplinary action.
“We’ve been doing this for years and years and years and never had a problem” until HHS started claiming the files were confidential, Foley said. “They know full well why I was looking at those disciplinary actions. They’ve known it for years because we do it every year.”
And while Foley said he had never seen a state agency issue such a letter alerting employees, an email from Clough to Fenner and others indicated state Labor Commissioner Cathy Lang sent a similar letter after auditors reviewed employees files.
Winterer said on KLIN he wasn’t interested in getting into a fight with Foley, he didn’t tip off the World-Herald and he had no intention of making the letter public. He questions Foley’s unfettered access to personnel files.
“I don’t see how we’ve inhibited his ability to do his job,” Winterer said. “I just felt it was the right thing to do to let employees know.”
Winterer denied politics had anything to do with his decision to send the letter.
“I’ve tried to keep politics out of the operation of this agency,” he said on KLIN. “We just, we do not play politics here.”
Editor’s note: to subscribe to News Updates from Nebraska Watchdog at no cost, click here.