DHS inspector general paid $42,000 to sit home says investigation never started

Minnesota has never started a probe against the state’s top investigator of child care fraud, paying her more than $42,000 to sit home on paid leave since March, the employee said Friday.

Department of Human Services Inspector General Carolyn Ham, who was put on leave because of a complaint filed in March, said she’s been told the investigation will start July 23 – four months and five days since she was placed on leave from her $132,880-a-year job.

“As I have said from the beginning, this investigation is purely political and there was no wrongdoing on my part,” Ham said in an emailed statement. “I have patiently waited for the investigation to begin, and I am ready to cooperate in any way that is necessary. As to the reason for the long delay, you will have to ask DHS.”

Asked what was taking so long, DHS officials were mum.

“Information about the status of investigations is not public. We can confirm that there is an open complaint,” said Jeanine Nistler, a department spokeswoman. Nistler, as DHS's communications staff often do, requested that her statement be attributed to her department generally.

Teddy Tschann, a spokesman for Gov. Tim Walz, said the governor cannot comment on the Ham situation because it is an open personnel matter.

Republican state lawmakers said Ham should’ve been removed months ago for her role in DHS’s ineffective investigations of fraud in the state’s child care assistance program.

“If what Ms. Ham says is true, and the investigation has not yet begun, we deserve answers from Gov. Walz and Commissioner (Tony) Lourey – immediately,” state Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, said in an emailed statement.

Ham is one of three DHS officials who are either on leave or resigning. Deputy commissioners Chuck Johnson and Claire Wilson have both announced they will step down – Wilson on Aug. 1 and Johnson within a month or two, a department spokeswoman said Thursday.

Lourey declined to give an explanation for the departures of Johnson and Wilson, the second- and third-ranking officials at the agency.

State Sen. Jim Abeler, chairman of the Senate Human Services committee, said Friday that he would call a hearing as early as August to dig into the issue. Abeler said DHS officials have not briefed him about the turmoil.

“Almost $18 billion a year goes through that place, serving Minnesotans,” said Abeler, R-Anoka, in an interview. “It really undermines my confidence in what they’re going to be doing in the future.”

Johnson had taken control of the Office of Inspector General after Ham was put on paid leave in March, meaning the office will soon have its third leader of 2019.

“Chuck Johnson will continue supporting OIG as we transition to an interim deputy which we hope to announce soon,” said Sarah Berg, a DHS spokeswoman. Berg also requested that her statement be attributed to her department and not to her.

DHS officials have never explained the details of the complaint against Ham, and she has previously called herself a scapegoat for fraud discovered within the child care program.

This winter, the nonpartisan legislative auditor said he could not determine the amount of fraud within the system. He also found dysfunction within the inspector general’s office because of a lack of trust between investigators and bureaucrats. Ham went on paid leave shortly after.

While declining to comment about Ham, Walz praised Johnson and Wilson for their “valuable service” at the agency.

“He wishes them the best in their next ventures, and he understands that their positions will be filled in the near future,” said Tschann, the governor’s spokesman.

Abeler said Johnson and Wilson would be “irreplaceable” because of their institutional knowledge and relationships with lawmakers.