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Reynolds: Firing Of DHS Director Partly Related To His Response To Glenwood Center Deaths

Grant Gerlock
IPR file
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks at a press conference in 2019.

Gov. Kim Reynolds acknowledged Tuesday her June 2019 firing of former Department of Human Services Director Jerry Foxhoven was partly related to his response to concerns about increased deaths at a state-run facility for disabled residents.

Her comments came one day after DHS released emails showing Rick Shults, an administrator under Foxhoven, approved a software purchase request in 2018 for a study of “sexual preoccupation issues” at Glenwood Resource Center.

Reynolds maintains she found out about allegations of human experimentation when the U.S. Department of Justice sent a letter, dated Nov. 21, 2019, saying it was investigating the center for potentially violating patients’ rights.

But months before receiving the DOJ letter, Reynolds said her office asked DHS about a spike in deaths at Glenwood. DHS, then led by Foxhoven, informed her office and some lawmakers that the death rate was normal.

“But I said to my team, this is still not acceptable,” Reynolds said. “I want to understand better what’s going on, we need to make some changes. I’m not happy with the response I’m getting. And so again, we just made the decision based on a whole lot of factors that we needed to move in a different direction.”

Reynolds has repeatedly said “a lot of factors” went into her decision to ask for Foxhoven’s resignation, but she has previously declined to provide more details.

Emails released by DHS show Glenwood employees raised various concerns with Foxhoven as early as January 2018.

But Reynolds said those complaints never reached her office. She said communication “was broken down across agencies.”

“I made a decision to go in a different direction and with the new person that I brought in, I’ve made it very clear that transparency is an expectation of that agency,” Reynolds said.

She hired Kelly Garcia as DHS director, who started in the position Nov. 1, 2019.

Reynolds was asked if she was too slow to act after the spike in deaths at Glenwood was reported by the Des Moines Register in April 2019.

“You can second guess whether I did it in a timely manner,” Reynolds said. “But when you don’t know what you don’t know, you’re kind of handcuffed on some of the changes that you can make.”

She said she does not know if Foxhoven was aware that Shults knew about the plan for the “sexual preoccupation” study.

Shults was allowed to retire weeks after the federal investigation was announced. He had originally planned to retire months earlier. Reynolds declined to say when she found out about Shults’ knowledge of the planned study.

Former Glenwood superintendent Jerry Rea was put on leave and fired after the DOJ investigation was announced.

A group of former GRC employees is suing the state, alleging Rea and other top facility officials ordered materials for a sexual arousal study, changed medications for study subjects, and retaliated against employees who protested. 

Foxhoven filed a complaint about his firing with the State Appeal Board, which could lead to him filing a lawsuit in the coming weeks. 

Reynolds also said Tuesday it is “fine” if lawmakers want to launch oversight committee hearings to ask Garcia more questions about the issue, as Democratic lawmakers were calling for oversight hearings. 

On Wednesday, House Republican leaders announced the House Government Oversight Committee will hold a hearing about Glenwood, after previously saying they would wait until the federal investigation was completed.

In a statement, House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said the allegations of abuse and human experimentation are "concerning."

"At this time, enough information has been made public, and I feel comfortable that the Government Oversight Committee can have a productive meeting without jeopardizing ongoing investigations," Grassley said. 

The oversight hearing is scheduled for March 16. 

This story was updated Friday, Feb. 28, at 12:00 p.m.