New DHS commissioner pledges to rebuild trust amid overwhelming problems

Minnesota’s new human services commissioner held aloft a granite plaque with the word “trustworthy” on it Wednesday, telling lawmakers that it would sit on her desk at the agency and govern the way she operates the beleaguered department.

Jodi Harpstead, who faced a Senate committee hearing in only her second day on the job, said she would seek to rebuild an agency that has been in turmoil this summer. She said she would soon be briefed on $73 million in accounting blunders, and announced that she would reconfigure a leadership team that has been hollowed out by resignations.

“The theme of my 90-day plan is to rebuild the department in order to rebuild trust with the people of Minnesota,” Harpstead told senators on the Senate Health and Human Services committees.

Harpstead, who left her job as chief executive of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota to take the DHS position, said she was working with department lawyers to draw a “bright line” between herself and LSS to avoid conflicts of interest. But the new commissioner said she did not have enough information to answer other questions from lawmakers about her new agency’s operations.

Harpstead said she was open to breaking apart the $18 billion department into pieces, something top lawmakers and Gov. Tim Walz say they are considering.

Senate Republicans view department officials as unwilling to make changes. To make his point at Wednesday’s hearing, state Sen. Jim Abeler pretended to write suggestions on a piece of paper, folded it into a paper airplane, and sailed it behind the heads of staffers onto the floor.

“That’s how people feel,” said Abeler, R-Anoka.

Republicans also implored Harpstead not to punish whistleblowers who speak out about the agency. Last month, an employee said she was threatened to be fired for testifying at a legislative hearing, and senators said other DHS employees have contacted them anonymously in recent weeks.

Harpstead said she did not know who would repay the federal government an estimated $73 million in overpayments and other accounting mistakes. Of that total, an estimated $48 million was in the area of chemical dependency provider payments, while an additional $25 million in overpayments went to two Native American tribes for medical services.

“That’s a very good question,” Harpstead said, when asked who was responsible for repayment. “I have the same question. I’ve just begun to get briefed on that issue and I need to learn more about it.”

She said she’s spoken with both the White Earth and Leech Lake tribes about getting the issue resolved.

“The taxpayers are on edge,” said state Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester. “They want to know, how is this going to be handled?”

During the Senate hearing, House Speaker Melissa Hortman released a letter in which she rebuffed Republicans’ requests to haul DHS officials in front of House committees. Instead, Hortman said she would give Harpstead time to implement her 90-day plan and recommend changes.

“As we move through this process and consider improvements to DHS, it is my expectation that this issue will be treated with the seriousness it deserves,” wrote Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “This should not be a partisan issue.”