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Maybe Board Members Are Too Busy to Watch

Marc Hansen

Des Moines Register

April 4, 2006

And see, below, the Register's Editorial, Get to Bottom of Job-Fund Misuse

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

Ramona Cunningham has a sweet deal. As chief executive officer of the publicly funded Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium, she makes about $360,000 a year.

And she isn't even a college basketball coach. She couldn't be. Colleges rarely write three months of paid vacation into their coaching contracts.

The old saying, "You can't take it with you" doesn't apply to Cunningham and Chief Operating Officer John Bargman. Should they die on the job, they get paid through the end of their last month. Endorsing the checks might be difficult, but what a send-off.

The CIETC, like most government agencies, always seems to be in the midst of a budget shortfall, always seems to be talking about trimming fat and eliminating jobs, never seems to have enough money to help all the people who need help.

Now that everyone knows how much the bosses are pulling in, it won't be as easy to make that case.

The federal government is investigating possible improprieties and worse. Why didn't Iowa Workforce Development step in and say, "no, no, no, this isn't right?"

Why did Archie Brooks, the CIETC board chairman, approve the contracts?

Why didn't the board of directors tell Brooks, the Des Moines city councilman, that paying this kind of money for that kind of work was way out of line? The people responsible for oversight were looking the other way. Why?

I can't answer the first two questions, but let's take a crack at the board of directors issue. The board members say they had no idea. They didn't know what the top executives were making.

If that's true, if they really were asleep at the wheel, it's probably because that's what too many boards do at the wheel. They doze. They snooze. They space out.

It's true on the corporate level, the nonprofit level, the government level. Too many board members are so overcommitted they're lucky they can remember which board or committee they're supposed to be directing on a given day.

There are two kinds of people in the world. No, not those who start paragraphs with "There are two kinds of people in the world" and those who don't.

I'm talking about the people who never get asked to serve on boards or committees, and the ones constantly asked to serve on boards and committees and who can't say no.

The best way to get on a board is to be on one already. High-profile public servants and big-shot executives are in great demand, which is good, because they're the ones who need to believe they're in great demand.

The more board and committee involvement the better. A heavy schedule further verifies their status and worth. It massages the ego.

A 12-step program might be helpful.

A few years ago, the American Institute of Philanthropy recognized a problem. Scandals at Red Cross, United Way and other nonprofit organizations were eroding the public trust. Confidence was at its lowest level in 20 years.

The philanthropy folks gave notice to all nonprofit board members. Anyone "more focused on social or networking opportunities" and less on "overseeing and governing" should resign immediately.

There's a downside to committee addiction. You spread yourself thin.

You aren't able to give every board or committee the attention it deserves.

You don't sweat the details. You fail to scrutinize contracts. You listen to presentations, stifle yawns, eat big meals, glance at your watch and wonder where you're supposed to be next.

A few months later, you are stunned to discover that two of your top bosses are making three or four times the going rate.

Max Worthington is a Jasper County supervisor and a six-year member of the CIETC board.

He hinted at the problem Monday in an interview with Register reporter Clark Kauffman.

"I'm on a lot of boards," Worthington said, "and this board is the one where I know the least about in terms of what is going on."

Let's hope so. To be fair, elected officials like Worthington and Dallas County Supervisor Mark Hanson are expected to be on a number of boards.

Hanson has been a CIETC board member for the past 15 months.

Upon request, he listed his board and committee affiliations.

Des Moines Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. Aging Resources of Central Iowa. Iowa Heartland Resource Conservation and Development. Community Opportunities. Chairman, Dallas County Enhanced 911 commission.

Part of the job or not, a 12-step program might help.

Get to Bottom of Job-Fund Misuse

Quit Buck-Passing; State Should Do Full Audit


Des Moines Register

April 5, 2006

The report that public money was misspent by a federally funded job-training agency based in Des Moines involves some Olympic-class buck-passing. There is plenty of blame to go around federal, state and local government, but it's time for the buck to land somewhere. From here on out, it belongs with the state.

The extent of the buck-passing is evident in a report by State Auditor David A. Vaudt revealing that three top employees of the Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium received salaries and bonuses amounting to $1.85 million over a period of 30 months far in excess of what Iowa public officials are paid for similar positions and in excess of what federal rules allow.

It looks as though just about everybody involved dropped the ball:

The U.S. Department of Labor was aware of the overpayments since at least December 2004, but did not disclose its findings to the public.

The state Department of Workforce Development, which falls under Gov. Tom Vilsack, failed to adequately monitor spending of federal money for the program.

And the local board, made up of city and county officials, seemed to take for granted anything the staff or its longtime chairman Des Moines City Councilman Archie Brooks told them.

One bright spot is the state auditor's office, whose report laid out in detail the misuse of public money. The auditor's report last Friday blindsided members of a joint legislative oversight committee, who at a Tuesday meeting were sore that they had to read about the auditor's report in the newspaper just like everyone else. But the auditor is elected to represent the people, not the Legislature. Far better that this sort of report be made public immediately, rather than slipped to key lawmakers to be stuffed in a drawer which is what appears to have happened to the federal audit.

Here's what should happen now: Vaudt should go back to work, conducting a complete audit of all job-training programs that channel federal money through state and local governments, not just in central Iowa, and for a longer period than covered by the initial report. The state should determine how much federal money was misspent and who is responsible for paying any of it back to the federal government. The Iowa attorney general and Polk County attorney should assess whether any laws have been broken.

Everyone should keep in mind that the biggest losers in all this are the people who desperately need assistance in learning new job skills. Every dollar squandered on lavish salaries for government bureaucrats cheats them.

Beyond that, this is a question of public trust. No fewer than 15 board members elected city and county officials and state labor officials were charged with overseeing the agency. Public faith is undermined in all government when officials at so many levels federal, state and local allow public money to be misused. More important than restoring any misspent money is restoring that public trust.