ST. PAUL — Four top brass resigned, and then two un-resigned, and there’s been little public explanation for why all the drama at Minnesota’s largest agency, the Department of Human Services.
And don’t expect any more insight from Pam Wheelock, the acting commissioner appointed by Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday, July 16. In an interview with the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Friday, Wheelock refused to discuss it in any detail.
Wheelock was tapped to replace former Commissioner Tony Lourey, who resigned Monday — six months after he vacated his longtime state Senate seat to lead the agency.
Lourey resigned after his two deputy commissioners — career administrators Charles E. Johnson and Claire Wilson — resigned the week before. Then after Lourey resigned, his chief of staff, Stacie Weeks, tendered her resignation. Then Johnson and Wilson rescinded their resignations. Lourey’s resignation letter simply said a new leader was “necessary,” and Walz merely stated it was “time for a new leadership style.”
DHS oversees a range of programs for the state’s most vulnerable residents, including child protection, serving the disabled and administering the state’s version of Medicaid.
Wheelock is a veteran of state government, academia, private business and philanthropy who is respected by both Democrats and Republicans.
She emphasized three priorities for what she expects to be a relatively brief tenure: bringing immediate stability, addressing any pressing concerns that may arise — as they often do at large agencies — and keeping an eye out for how to improve how things work at DHS.
But reporters pressed her on how we got here. Here’s some of Friday’s interview.
The big question I think for the public is: What’s been going on — really?
I would say that my orientation starting on Tuesday is moving forward. I’m not in the position, nor am I really interested, or think it’ll add value, about examining what happened in the past. What I can observe is that this is a very hard job. It’s a big, complex agency with 6,700 employees and serving more than a million people in Minnesota. Budget of $19 billion. And you can’t do this job with all the varied audiences and the integrated overlapping programmatic areas without a lot of complexity, controversy, conflict. And the prior commissioner, I really applaud. He did a great job, I think, in the first six months about some important goals during the legislative session with his full team. And I know from my own professional experience, people make decisions for deeply personal reasons, and I respect that. And there’s no reason why I think I need to know anything more than I do, so my orientation is: Move forward, bring stability, get needed important work done and solve problems where I need to solve problems.
Was there a ‘deeply personal reason’ why Commissioner Lourey resigned?
I have no idea, but there are really four people being talked about with these resignations, and I’m sure none of this is easy, and everybody makes decisions based on their own situation and their own assessment.
Let me make the argument that it is relevant going forward. Our reporting suggests that all this stems from a rift between Lourey and his chief of staff on one side, and Johnson and Wilson on another side. One group is out now, the other is in. That has to have some bearing. What can you tell us about that?
Well, the only thing that I would say is, again, I am less concerned about what happened before Tuesday morning when I started as the acting commissioner of DHS.
How long do you expect (your tenure) to be?
I really don’t know.
Will you apply for it permanently?
No. I’m not a candidate for the permanent position. … I’m not here to look in the rear view mirror. I’m here driving ahead, trying to help the team of 6,700 as best I can.
Republicans have used the word “scandal” to describe what has happened. What’s your take on that description?
I appreciate, from the outside, this looks atypical. But that’s a pretty serious word, and the fact of the matter is we’re all people, and people have a lot of reasons for making the changes they do. … I wouldn’t make more of it than what people say is their motivation, and I think they can trust that people are being as candid as they can be.
OK, what I’m getting at, more specifically, is, is there any chance that relates to anything that is a scandal of government malfeasance, like misuse of government resources, violations of law, criminality — that level of — corruption?
I would just say this and then I’m going to move on: There is nothing that I know today that suggests there’s any value for me in looking backwards.