Jerry Foxhoven says governor’s office is lying about why he was forced to resign, and he’ll sue for wrongful termination

Video still of Jerry Foxhoven on Iowa Public Television.

Jerry Foxhoven said he was “absolutely shocked” when he was forced to resign as director of the Iowa Department of Human Services in June.

“I was completely caught unawares, to be honest with you,” Foxhoven said, during a press conference in West Des Moines on Thursday morning. “I had never been given any impression by the governor, or her staff, that we weren’t moving in the right direction.”

Foxhoven was seated next to his attorney, Tom Duff, at a press conference that was called to announce the fact Foxhoven intends to file a wrongful termination lawsuit.

Duff acknowledged that as director, Foxhoven had been an at-will employee without civil service protection, and therefore could be fired by the governor at any time. But, he noted, even firing an at-will employee can be illegal in certain circumstances.

“One would be terminating someone in violation of public policy,” Duff said. “Firing someone because they are about to blow the whistle, or because they refuse to engage in conduct that violates the public policy of the state of Iowa [is illegal].”

According to Foxhoven, that’s what happened to him.

Foxhoven told a Pitchfork magazine reporter last month that he was told to resign after saying he wanted to get a legal opinion before fulfilling a request from the governor’s office he thought might be illegal. He had not offered any details in public before.

It had been reported that the request Foxhoven refused to immediately approve was the use of DHS funds to pay the salary of Elizabeth Matney, a former DHS employee who joined Reynolds’ staff as an adviser on health policy in May. But on Thursday, Foxhoven said he hadn’t been asked about paying Matney’s salary. The disagreement was over using DHS funds to pay Paige Thorson, the governor’s assistant chief of staff.

“Sometime early in the last legislative session, I made it pretty clear to the governor’s chief of staff [Sara Craig Gongol] that I felt that they ought to get funding for their staff person — at that time we were paying for Paige Thorson, a good part of her salary,” Foxhoven explained.

He said the arrangement to help pay Thorson’s salary had been made in 2018, because at that time, Thorson’s work in the governor’s office was largely focused on health care issues. But that changed over the past year, when Thorson became the governor’s deputy chief of staff.

“So, as we approached the new fiscal year, which would start July 1 … I reached out to Sara, the governor’s chief of staff, and told her we’re not going to pay that salary anymore,” Foxhoven said.

According to Foxhoven, Craig Gongol told him that DHS was expected to continue paying Thorson, and might be asked to increase the amount it was spending on her.

“So my response was that I was concerned that it wasn’t even legal to do that at this stage now,” Foxhoven said. “Because Paige Thorson was now the deputy chief of staff and they had a different person doing health policy.”

Foxhoven said he told Craig Gongol he wanted a written opinion verifying the legality of the salary arrangement before he would approve it.

“I said, I don’t care if I get it from your legal counsel, Sam Langholz,” Foxhoven continued. “If I get an email from him, I’ll live with that. Or I’ll go to the [attorney general’s] office and get an opinion.”

“She made it clear the governor’s legal counsel was not going to get involved in that discussion.”

Foxhoven said he then told Craig Gongol he’d get an opinion from one of the assistant attorney generals who regularly work with DHS. He told her that for scheduling reasons, he wouldn’t contact the attorneys until Tuesday, June 18.

He said their conversation “just ended there.”

“It was pretty clear they were not open to it being a discussion,” according to Foxhoven.

A few days later, Craig Gongol called him and scheduled a meeting for Monday, June 17, the day before Foxhoven had planned to contact an assistant attorney general.

That meeting “was pretty short,” Foxhoven said.

“There were just three of us in the room — Sam Langholz, the governor’s legal counsel, Sara and I,” Foxhoven recounted. “We sat down, and she said, ‘The governor’s decided to go in a different direction, and we’re going to ask for you to leave.’”

Craig Gongol asked him to turn over his keycard and his official cell phone, and told Foxhoven not to return to his DHS office.

“Sam pulled out a piece of paper, with kind of one line, ‘I hereby resign,’ asked me to sign it, and that was the end of it,” he said.

A reporter pointed out to Foxhoven that Craig Gongol has said, as DHS director, Foxhoven never raised any concerns about using DHS funds to pay members of the governor’s staff.

“Well, she’s not telling the truth about it,” Foxhoven replied. “The bottom line is that I had a phone conversation with her, and I made it very clear that I questioned whether it was legal or not.”

Foxhoven said he didn’t make a written record of the conversation, because it never occurred to him he needed to.

Asked if he had raised his concerns directly with Gov. Reynolds, Foxhoven said he never got the opportunity.

“Several months before this occurred I sent the governor a text, asking to meet with her and talk with her privately,” Foxhoven explained, “and said it could be very short. I never even got a response to it.”

According to Foxhoven, Reynolds’ approach to her job has changed since last year. She used to regularly meet with the directors of state agencies to discuss how the agencies were performing; he said he met with her at least once every eight weeks. But that changed after Reynolds won November’s election.

“I hadn’t had much communication with the governor, frankly. I don’t know that I’ve had an individual meeting with her since the election,” he said. “She wasn’t meeting directly with her directors anymore. It was her staff that was meeting with them.”

Foxhoven said his interactions with Reynolds this year had been limited to a few meetings between the governor and all agency directors, in which Reynolds addressed general topics.

Reynolds didn’t address Foxhoven’s comments about her management style in a written statement her office sent out on Thursday afternoon. Instead, she repeated her previous statement that “many factors” went into her decision to force Foxhoven to resign.

As I have consistently shared with Iowans, many factors went into my decision to ask for Jerry Foxhoven’s resignation. Foxhoven never raised concerns with me or my staff about the salary agreements in question, and he never asked my staff for a legal opinion or said he would be reaching out to the Attorney General’s office for one. I would never ask anyone to do something they thought was illegal.

Reynolds has never explained what the “many factors” were, beyond saying she wants to take DHS in a new direction. The governor told KCRG last month that she doesn’t believe Iowans are entitled to a more detailed explanation.

On Thursday, Foxhoven rejected the idea he was fired because the governor wants to change directions at DHS. If that was the case, Foxhoven said, he would have be asked to help with a transition, instead of being told not to return to his office.

Duff said it might take two years before Foxhoven’s case goes to court. Before he can even file a lawsuit, Foxhoven must first file a claim of wrongful termination with the State Appeal Board of the Iowa Department of Management. If the board does not resolve the claim within six months, then Foxhoven will be able to file a civil lawsuit.

It’s possible there may be some answer about what happened before the case gets to a jury. After it was reported last month that Foxhoven was forced out, because he refused to do something potentially illegal, he was interviewed by an agent from the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“He knocked on my door,” Foxhoven said. “He showed me a badge and ID, and said, ‘Can I ask you a few questions?’”

The federal agency provides 66 percent of the funds for Medicaid, which DHS administers in Iowa.

State Auditor Rob Sand has also said that he will investigate the circumstances of Foxhoven’s termination.

As the press conference concluded, a reporter asked Foxhoven about Tupac Shakur. The Associated Press reported last month that Foxhaven — who has described himself as a 66-year-old white guy, who loves Tupac’s music — had quoted the late rapper in emails to his staff. The anomaly of an otherwise staid Iowa official quoting Tupac made Foxhoven and his emails a national curiosity.

The former DHS director said he thought the Tupac part of his story had been overblown. He pointed out that he also quoted Dr. Seuss in his emails, but no one ever asked about that.

But Foxhoven is OK with his brief moment of hip-hop-related fame.

“Now my name is forever linked with Tupac on Google,” Foxhoven said with a smile. “So, my kids think that’s pretty cool.”

Asked what his favorite Tupac song is, Foxhoven replied “Changes,” although “California Love” is a close second.