ST. PAUL — The head of the state's Department of Human Services said that 90 days into the job, she feels the agency is making changes to prevent financial problems and increase public trust.
But some of those commitments came under fire Monday, Dec. 2, as Commissioner Jodi Harpstead came before a Minnesota House Health and Human Services Committee. The panel received the commissioner's initial assessment and grilled her about their concerns with the agency.
Harpstead took over as commissioner in September after a series of top-level leadership shakeups and a set of problem payments came to light.
The "frenzy" of news stories and whistleblower complaints at the department highlighted misused funds from years past, Harpstead said, but current officials at DHS were taking steps to prevent additional issues. And following those top turnovers, Harpstead said there've been no employee re-assignments or removals, with one exception.
"Most of the payment issues we're addressing now did not happen in 2019, they went viral in 2019," Harpstead said. "And we put stopgaps in place before the end of 2019."
After a lawmaker asked for a status update on the investigation of former DHS Inspector General Carolyn Ham, Harpstead revealed that the probe had closed with no recommendations and no dismissals. Ham accepted a post within another area of the department, Harpstead said, at Ham's request.
The former inspector came under investigation in March after a complaint was filed against her. Few details about the complaint or the investigation have been made public. Ham, in a news release, said the result cleared her of any wrongdoing.
The news of the end of that probe and the lack of consequences for department officials who'd overseen the misspending of $106.5 million in the last six years irked Republicans on the committee. Meanwhile, Democrats and Harpstead pointed to the low percentage of the department's budget improperly used in that time — 0.1% — and said DHS officials had largely succeeded in their efforts to provide services to 1 million vulnerable children, older adults and individuals with disabilities.
"I think a commissioner that wants respect in that agency is going to have to make changes, appropriate changes," Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said. "We have to hold people accountable. Our citizens at home are holding us accountable to figure this out."
More changes on the way
Harpstead said the department still had work to do in rebuilding the trust of Minnesotans and planned to restructure senior positions to better communicate in the department and with the public. And she planned to add an assistant commissioner of equity and inclusion and to appoint an advisory panel including private and public sector members to review progress and to restore trust.
The department was also set to launch additional process controls beginning Tuesday to ensure problem payments aren't approved in the future. An outside group would also be contracted to assess those internal controls, Harpstead said. And a former county and tribal advisory board to the department would also be rebuilt, she said.
“Give us a chance to be trustworthy and to demonstrate that trustworthiness and to put that trustworthiness back together,” Harpstead said. “We intend to make good on that for you and for all the people of Minnesota."
Lawmakers for months have pressed for answers about why top DHS officials stepped down over the summer or threatened to resign. And questions from reporters and legislators yielded few new responses Monday.
Harpstead said she'd not asked why former Commissioner Tony Lourey left his post or why two deputy commissioners said they'd step down about the same time. The commissioner said she viewed the decisions as being personnel issues that she didn't feel were essential to address when she came into leadership.
Democrats on the panel said they appreciated Harpstead's transparent work the past three months as well as her efforts to move the department forward.
"The problems didn't occur this year, there have been problems over the years," Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said. "And an agency of this complexity with an ever-changing rules landscape, things are always changing, it would be amazing to me to never get one of those (issues)."
A renewed call to break up the department
Harpstead on Monday said she could support a move to break up the department. And she said Gov. Tim Walz would publicly outline his administration's decision in the coming days.
The DFL governor at an unrelated news conference told reporters that he's considering breaking down the department.
While some lawmakers have supported the call to divide DHS into smaller parts, House Assistant Deputy Minority Leader Anne Neu, R-North Branch, said there should be more clarity around the problems at the agency before she could support breaking it up. She and others have called for a forensic audit of DHS.
"It's dangerous to have that discussion before we know what and where the problems are," Neu told reporters. "Without a full audit, we are never going to get to the bottom of problems at DHS."