IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A state employee who helped organize conferences for Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’ signature jobs program resigned days before the November election, saying she felt pressured to shape the taxpayer-funded events to benefit the governor’s campaign.
April Hughes alleged that she and her colleagues at Iowa Workforce Development were directed to plan summits for the Future Ready Iowa program in the weeks leading up to the election. She resigned effective Oct. 23, alleging that her work as a civil servant had become tainted by “very politically charged assignments,” according to records and testimony obtained by The Associated Press through an open records request.
The state hosted 16 summits between Sept. 21 and Oct. 30 that drew leaders from industry, government and education, were promoted by Iowa Workforce Development staff, and included videos featuring Reynolds and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg. They were held in cities big and small in every corner of the state, from Spencer to Burlington. Two additional summits were held after the election — for the Democratic strongholds of Iowa City-Cedar Rapids and Waterloo.
Throughout last year’s campaign, the Republican governor credited Future Ready Iowa with helping make the state unemployment rate among the lowest in the nation and promised the program would help workers earn higher wages and companies find well-trained employees. Reynolds narrowly defeated Democrat Fred Hubbell, a wealthy businessman who had criticized Reynolds’ management of economic matters, to win a four-year term in office.
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Hughes, a workforce adviser in Des Moines, said she supported the goals of Future Ready Iowa, which aims to increase the number of residents with post-secondary training. But she testified at an unemployment hearing earlier this month that it became clear during planning meetings that the timing of the summits was political. She said planners made decisions intended to keep agency director Beth Townsend, a Reynolds appointee, and the governor happy.
“It became very clear that’s why we were doing all of this,” she testified. “It wasn’t to serve the community.”
Hughes worked under Future Ready Iowa coordinator Alison Sidwell starting in August and helped plan the summits in Ames, Des Moines and Creston.
Hughes submitted notice of her resignation Oct. 11, after Townsend removed most of the community speakers and topics Hughes had put on the agenda for the Creston summit. Hughes, who lived near Creston, objected to the changes that Townsend proposed, which included removing some local educators from speaking roles, and believed they were for political reasons.
“Due to the tasks that have been assigned being very politically charged, I feel that this is not a good representation of the values that I have as a person or employee,” wrote Hughes, who had worked for the agency since 2016.
Sidwell testified that Hughes was a good employee and that she asked Hughes to reconsider resigning, saying she would assign other duties if she was uncomfortable planning the summits. She said the pre-election period was always a busy time in state government but that politics didn’t drive the summit planning.
Hughes said that Sidwell and another agency manager told her that the working conditions would improve after the election, which “reinforced that I was being made to promote a political agenda.”
Iowa Workforce Development lawyer Benjamin Humphries argued during the unemployment hearing that Future Ready Iowa is a bipartisan program addressing the state’s shortage of skilled workers. He argued the summits were intended to bring stakeholders together to identify challenges and best practices and weren’t Republican-slanted. He noted that Des Moines community leader Marvin DeJear, husband of then-Democratic secretary of state candidate Deidre DeJear, moderated panels at two summits.
Lawmakers unanimously approved funding for Future Ready Iowa last year, including money for Iowa Workforce Development to hire a program coordinator. Democrats such as Sen. Bill Dotzler of Waterloo voted for the plan but argued millions more were needed for low-income scholarship and apprenticeship programs for Future Ready Iowa to be successful.
Dotzler said he believed it wasn’t a coincidence that the summit in his city came after the election.
“You’ve got to give them credit for being shrewd about what they were doing. They played politics with a policy that was going nowhere to benefit their campaign,” he said. “They fooled Iowans into believing they were doing something.”
Hughes’ resignation became public earlier this month after she fought the agency’s denial of her application for unemployment benefits. She argued she resigned only because of the improper political nature of her work. Administrative Law Judge Tricia Johnston denied benefits in a Jan. 10 ruling, finding that Hughes voluntarily quit.
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