Walz picks another new leader for troubled Human Services agency

Gov. Tim Walz on Monday chose nonprofit executive Jodi Harpstead as his next human services commissioner, saying her leadership will bring stability to an agency in turmoil.

Harpstead has been chief executive at Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota since 2011 and was previously an executive at Medtronic. She faces an incredible task: steady an agency that saw four of its top leaders resign at different points this summer and is now the subject of an outside investigation. 

DHS provides services to more than 1 million Minnesotans, has an $18 billion budget, and employs 6,700 people.

“They now deserve a chance to rebuild their team and get back to their good work of effectively supporting their neighbors,” Harpstead told reporters during a Monday morning news conference in the governor’s office.

Walz’s announcement came less than 24 hours before Senate Republicans were scheduled to hold a hearing about the investigations and resignations. The GOP’s own investigative tactics came under scrutiny Monday when a whistleblower portal launched to dig up dirt was flagged by internet search browsers as a potential security risk.

When Harpstead takes control Sept. 3, she will become the third person to lead DHS within six weeks. Former Commissioner Tony Lourey resigned in mid-July amid disagreement over the direction of the agency, and Walz appointed veteran administrator Pam Wheelock as the acting commissioner.

Time to ‘move on?’

Wheelock, not Harpstead, will testify at Tuesday’s Senate hearing. Wheelock said she would have “no big surprises” during her testimony, before criticizing news coverage that has portrayed DHS as an agency in trouble.

“I think the use of the terminology “chaos” and “turmoil” is misplaced and it’s time for all of us to move on,” Wheelock said.

Senate Republicans said Monday they had no plans to take Wheelock’s advice.

“We’re supposed to just walk past this like there’s nothing to see?” said state Sen. Michelle Benson, who chairs the Senate Health committee. “Regardless of commissioner or governor, there’s something at DHS that keeps them from changing and we have to keep pushing until the change comes.”

Benson said senators had invited other DHS officials to testify but Wheelock was the only one coming. Lourey was also invited but will not attend, Benson said.

Walz said he had initially considered Harpstead for the commissioner’s job in December, but she was not among the top three finalists at the time. The governor said he had prioritized legislative experience with budget negotiations looming, which led him to Lourey, who was then a state senator.

Walz said others were under consideration this time, but declined to provide their names.

Whistleblower website unsecure

Besides the resignations, DHS has also faced scrutiny for other reasons.

The top investigator tasked with finding fraud in Minnesota’s child care assistance program, Carolyn Ham, was put on paid investigative leave in March and collected more than $42,000 while sitting home. Ham returned to work recently – albeit in a different role, because the investigation against her remains open.

Separately, the state may have overpaid two Native American tribes millions of dollars for medical services, Walz has said. The state Office of Legislative Auditor is investigating the matter.

Last month, Senate Republicans launched a state employee whistleblower portal, where they expected to collect confidential tips about wrongdoing at DHS. But the website itself had a security issue Monday, when internet search browsers said it was unsecure.

A spokeswoman for Senate Republicans said the website’s security certificate expired last week and was in the process of being renewed. But Democrats blasted the lapse.

“It was clear from the start that this whistleblower website is nothing more than a stunt designed to score political points. Now we know that Minnesota Republicans are willing to expose whistleblowers’ private information to hackers and risk ruining careers in order to score those political points,” Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin said in a statement.

Walz has said he supports the legislative hearing and is looking forward to the results of a commission that is supposed to study future changes at DHS. When asked Monday morning, Harpstead declined to say what her initial message for Senate Republicans would be.

“I have no message today for Senate Republicans but best wishes on the hearing tomorrow and I’m eager to hear the results,” she said.

Wheelock and Walz said the human services agency was continuing to provide uninterrupted service for Minnesotans despite the revolving door at the top of the department.

“I think you’re doing your job of asking when we’re not delivering, when we’ve got people leaving, when we’ve got investigations that need to have questions asked about,” the governor told reporters. “But I’m also really proud of the incredible work we’re doing.”