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Minnesota’s new human services chief vows to rebuild trust

September 4, 2019
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New Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead takes questions from state senators after being introduced at the start of a Minnesota State Senate joint meeting on Health and Human Services finance and policy Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019 at the Minnesota Senate Building in St. Paul, Minn. (Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via AP)
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New Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead takes questions from state senators after being introduced at the start of a Minnesota State Senate joint meeting on Health and Human Services finance and policy Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019 at the Minnesota Senate Building in St. Paul, Minn. (Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via AP)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota’s new human services commissioner on Wednesday said she is making trustworthiness the focus of her first 90 days on the job leading the state’s largest and most criticized agency.

Speaking at a Minnesota Senate hearing, Jodi Harpstead held up a granite plaque engraved with the word “Trustworthy” that had sat on her desk when she was chief executive of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota. She said the plaque didn’t face outward to claim to the world that she was trustworthy, but faced inward as a reminder of the importance of integrity.

“There’s nothing more important for the Minnesota Department of Human Services than to be trustworthy for the people of Minnesota,” Harpstead said on just her second day as commissioner.

The department has been in turmoil over upper management departures and about $73 million in overpayments to tribal and other chemical dependency treatment providers that somehow must be repaid to the federal government. Lawmakers have long been disturbed about millions of dollars in fraud that authorities documented in the department’s Child Care Assistance Program for low-income working parents, and the slow pace of an investigation that ensued into the department’s inspector general.

Harpstead said the priority in her 90-day plan is to get fully briefed on those controversies. She said she will press for the completion of audits and reviews now underway that will recommend measures going forward to prevent more trouble.

Several open senior management positions will be filled with people who have diverse skills who can work together well, she said. She also said she’s open to spinning off parts of the massive agency into separate entities to make the department smaller and more manageable.

Harpstead took over from Acting Commissioner Pam Wheelock. Democratic Gov. Tim Walz brought Wheelock in to stabilize the agency when his original appointment, Tony Lourey, resigned abruptly after just six months amid a cascade of other departures that the administration has not fully explained.

Republican Sen. Michelle Benson, who led the joint hearing of two Senate human services panels, told Harpstead that she hopes the new commissioner feels empowered to make changes.

“I appreciate that you want to rebuild the department so you can rebuild trust,” Benson said. “There are so many places that trust has been broken.”

Fearful department employees have been relaying issues to the committees anonymously, and a culture of fear won’t lead to a productive agency, Benson said.

“Do not take any punitive steps against whistleblowers,” urged GOP Sen. Andrew Matthews.

GOP Sen. Carla Nelson asked Harpstead to explain who will repay the federal government for the overpayments. Republicans who control the committees made it clear three weeks ago at the first in a series of oversight hearings on the department’s woes that they want the agency to find the funds in its own budget instead of clawing it back from the tribes or asking lawmakers for more.

Harpstead said she had “cordial conversations” with White Earth and Leech Lake officials Tuesday about how to proceed without harming the tribes, but that she still needs to learn more about the scope of the problems and possible paths forward.

“The taxpayers are on edge,” Nelson said. “They want to know: ‘How is this going to be handled?’”

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