Less than 48 hours after Minnesota Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey unexpectedly stepped down from his post, two top deputies who had announced their departures the week before decided to rescind their resignations.
Wednesday’s turn of events came a day after Lourey’s chief of staff, Stacie Weeks, also announced her plans to resign, extending a dizzying shake-up of top leaders from the state’s largest agency.
The return of Claire Wilson and Charles Johnson, the two deputies who resigned last week, was announced in a memo sent to staff Wednesday that did little to shed light on the circumstances of their sudden and brief departures. The agency declined to release their resignation letters, citing state law, and neither has said anything publicly.
Gov. Tim Walz and other top administration officials sought to reassure workers at the sprawling state agency and return it to a sense of normalcy.
“I thank Chuck and Claire for their willingness to continue their leadership roles during my tenure,” acting Commissioner Pam Wheelock said in the note to employees. She also thanked Weeks for her service and promised the embattled Department of Human Services (DHS) workers that the work would go on.
“I am confident that with your assistance, we will continue the good work of the agency and be in a strong position for a new commissioner going forward,” Wheelock wrote.
Weeks’ departure had marked the latest move in a growing leadership crisis at the $17.5 billion agency that serves 1.2 million people, including many of the state’s most vulnerable populations. Before her current role at DHS, Weeks served as director of public policy and advocacy at Hennepin Healthcare and before that worked with Lourey in the Minnesota Senate. She did not immediately return calls or e-mails Wednesday.
Lourey left his position at the end of the day Monday, just six months after taking the job. His exit appeared to have been precipitated by the departures of his two top deputies, both career administrators. Johnson is deputy commissioner for operations and Wilson is a deputy commissioner for policy.
Walz, who immediately appointed Wheelock as acting commissioner, gave no explanation for Lourey’s departure except to say that the former state senator felt his “management style” no longer suited the agency’s needs.
Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann released a statement saying the governor “is pleased that the two deputy commissioners have decided to stay for the time being, so that there is a stable leadership team in place to manage through the transition to a permanent commissioner.”
Tschann added: “The governor will continue working with legislators on both sides of the aisle to ensure the agency is functioning as effectively as possible.”
But state Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, who has worked on health and human service issues, said lawmakers have been given scant information about the moving pieces. “Looking at the timing of the resignation of the chief of staff, and then the two deputy commissioners coming back, I think we’re all putting the pieces together in what we think we know,” he said.
Zerwas said the situation appears to have been a battle between the semi-permanent DHS bureaucracy and Lourey and his hand-picked people — with the bureaucracy winning.
A number of DHS officials and people with ties to the agency said the recent turmoil stemmed from an internal power struggle between Lourey and his two top deputies over how much independence they should be given to run their divisions.
Wy Spano, past director of Metropolitan State University’s political leadership program, said the DHS is uniquely difficult for outsiders to manage — even for someone like Lourey, who is steeped in health and human services policy. “Bureaucrats are always resistant to change, and especially in that agency,” given its massive size and the technical know-how required to manage it, Spano said.
Wheelock was most recently chief operating officer at Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity and brings a long résumé in the public and private sectors. She also appears to have the confidence of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, having worked for Democrats, Republicans and former Gov. Jesse Ventura.
“Leading an agency as massive and complex as DHS is no easy task, and she should be commended for accepting the challenge,” said state Sen. Michelle Benson, a Ham Lake Republican who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee. “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 staff tumult caps a difficult stretch for the agency whose portfolio includes Medicaid, care for people with disabilities, state psychiatric facilities, sex offender treatment and the state’s child-care assistance program.
In recent months the DHS has been under increased pressure from lawmakers to control spending and tackle fraud in state-licensed programs while simultaneously meeting the needs of the state’s expanding population of poor, elderly and frail people in the state’s Medical Assistance program.
Republican lawmakers held a news conference Monday — Lourey’s last day — decrying the pace of an investigation of the agency’s Inspector General Carolyn Ham, who was placed on paid leave in March after the legislative auditor found high levels of fraud in the state’s child-care assistance program.
The turnabout by Johnson and Wilson appears to bring the immediate crisis over who will run DHS to an end. Still, the absence of an official explanation from the agency for the chaotic turn of events has unsettled legislators and social service advocates.
“There was an underlying cause here, and the public has a right to know what that was,” said Roberta Opheim, state ombudsman for mental health and developmental disabilities.