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Minnesota Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead on Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019, spoke before a joint legislative committee to talk about her plan for moving forward. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

New commissioner takes the helm at DHS with promise to rebuild trust

ST. PAUL — Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead held up a granite plaque that read "trustworthy" and set it before her as she stared down more than a dozen lawmakers before her in a crowded hearing room.

On her second day in the new position, Harpstead, a former Lutheran Social Services and Medtronic executive, committed to delving into the goings-on at the state's troubled social services agency that takes in more than $18 billion every two years.

She said her first priority would be understanding issues of apparent misspending and employee mistrust before charting a path forward.

The comments before the pair of Minnesota Senate Health and Human Services committees on Wednesday, Sept. 4, come in the days after the latest news of top-level resignations and misspending at the department. And they follow years of concerns about overspending in programs administered by the Child Care Assistance Program and others.

"There's nothing more important for the Department of Human Services than to be trustworthy for the people of Minnesota," Harpstead said. "The theme of my 90-day plan is to rebuild the department in order to rebuild trust with the people of Minnesota."

After getting up to speed on roughly $73 million in unauthorized spending and a series of resignations at top levels of the department over the summer, Harpstead said she would put together a new leadership team with diverse experience, meet with key stakeholders and continue work on innovative projects.

Lawmakers said they were glad to hear the agency's new head acknowledge problems but also raised concerns about the department's culture moving forward. They urged Harpstead to make transparency and acceptance of whistleblowers key moving forward.

"There are so many places that trust has been broken," Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said. “I appreciate you want to rebuild the department to rebuild trust."

Harpstead enters the agency after former commissioner Tony Lourey abruptly stepped down in July following the resignation of two top deputies at DHS. Lourey's chief of staff followed him out the door and, soon after, deputies Claire Wilson and Chuck Johnson agreed to stay on. The pair had decades of experience at the department between them.

Gov. Tim Walz quickly appointed Pam Wheelock, a former finance commissioner under the Ventura administration, to serve as acting commissioner.

In the weeks that followed, news broke about the state overpaying two indigenous tribes for substance abuse treatment services administered through Medicaid to the tune of $25 million. Later, $48 million in additional errors in payment through the department came to light, for which the state could be on the hook.

After resigning and pulling her resignation, DHS Deputy Commissioner Claire Wilson again last week announced that she would step down from the department.

"Resignations, un-resignations, re-resignations, the list has been long enough that it's eroded public confidence to the lowest levels that I've ever seen," Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Milaca, said Wednesday.

Republican lawmakers all summer called for additional hearings to more clearly illustrate what goes on behind the scenes at the agency. Lawmakers at the hearing Wednesday noted their frustrations about the lack of answers they received from department heads and encouraged Harpstead to be open about problems and let whistleblowers come forward without fear of reprisal.

"The taxpayers are on edge," Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said after Harpstead told the panel she had initial conversations with the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and White Earth Nation. "They want to know how is this going to be handled."

Meanwhile, House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, in a letter Wednesday said Democrats would give Harpstead a three-month timeline to get DHS in order before holding hearings and probing problems there.

"In my view, it's not appropriate to ask the former interim commissioner who has completed her work and service to the State of Minnesota to testify at a hearing," Hortman wrote to House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown. "It is also not appropriate or useful to ask a brand new commissioner who has just started her work to come and testify."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated Harpstead's title. She is commissioner of human services.