ST. PAUL — Two top officials at the Minnesota Department of Human Services rescinded their resignations Wednesday, July 17, following the announcement hours earlier that the chief of staff of a former commissioner would step down.
The news continued a sort of musical chairs at the top levels of leadership at the department that manages more than $18 billion in programs and services that range from child support to food assistance for more than 1 million Minnesotans.
Deputy Commissioner for Operations Chuck Johnson and Deputy Commissioner for Policy Claire Wilson abruptly resigned their posts at DHS on Friday, July 12, citing concerns with the direction of the agency, but they didn't provide further explanation. The two brought decades of experience to DHS and Wilson was one of three finalists for the top DHS post under the Walz administration.
On Monday, July 15, then-DHS Commissioner Tony Lourey announced that he would resign from his position, effective at the end of the day.
In his resignation letter, Lourey said he thought a new head of the department was needed for Gov. Tim Walz to "best execute your vision for human services and continue the critical work of improving the health of Minnesotans across the state." He didn't comment to reporters about the resignation. Walz said he learned Sunday that Lourey planned to resign but didn't ask him to step down.
Late Tuesday, Lourey's chief of staff Stacie Weeks announced she would also resign her post, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
In an email to DHS employees on Wednesday morning, new Acting Commissioner Pam Wheelock said Johnson and Wilson would stay on and confirmed that Weeks had resigned.
"Deputy Commissioners Chuck Johnson and Claire Wilson have rescinded their resignations, which I welcome as a way to ensure continuity that will benefit the organization during this transition period," Wheelock wrote in the email. "I thank Chuck and Claire for their willingness to continue their leadership roles during my tenure."
Wheelock, Walz and Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, in statements or interviews thanked Weeks for her work with the department and said they were eager to see DHS move forward.
"This is the way this goes, they're a package deal. The chief of staff comes with their boss and we certainly anticipated that would be the case," Walz told Forum News Service Wednesday morning. "In that role, that was outgoing Commissioner Lourey's chief of staff and it's highly unusual, if not almost never, will someone stay in that, so that was anticipated."
Johnson and Wilson through a department spokeswoman declined further comment on their decisions to stay on with DHS.
Wheelock took over as DHS acting commissioner on Tuesday and in an email to department employees, she said she was meeting with leadership. And Benson said Wheelock reached out to her within her first few hours in office. Benson chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Policy and Finance Committee.
"Leading an agency as massive and complex as DHS is no easy task," Benson said in a news release, commenting on Wheelock's first day and a half in office, "and she should be commended for accepting the challenge. Republicans are committed to working with anyone who is interested in improving eligibility and accountability at the department while continuing to provide critical services to those who need it most. Based on our initial conversation, I am optimistic that Acting Commissioner Wheelock and I are on the same page."
The department came under scrutiny last week following the leadership shake-up and news that the state hadn't yet begun an investigation of Carolyn Ham, a top investigator of child care fraud at DHS.
Ham was placed on leave four months ago following an Office of Legislative audit report that found "pervasive" fraud in the state's Child Care Assistance Program. Ham received $42,000 in that timeframe despite being on leave from the post.
Days after the lag in that investigation came to light, state officials said they'd launched the investigation but didn't say when.
Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, on Wednesday said lawmakers and Minnesota taxpayers deserve more answers about revolving door at DHS, which has remained in motion over the last week.
"We just don't have any information on what's the root cause of all this unhappiness and turmoil within the agency, " Zerwas said. “Since four people decided they needed to jump ship in the matter of a long weekend, we need to figure out what’s really going on there.”
Rep. Tina Liebling, D-Rochester, said reopening the conflicts that led to the series of resignations and reversals would be counterproductive unless concrete evidence emerged of wrongdoing at DHS.
"I have no reason to believe that there’s any sort of scandal," said Liebling, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Finance Division. "I think it's just Commissioner Lourey not having the entire skill package he needs to be successful in that position."
She said the department would be better served moving forward under new leadership and focusing on implementing new laws approved this year by the Legislature.