ST. PAUL — Gov. Tim Walz on Monday, July 15, announced the appointment of a new acting Department of Human Services commissioner after Commissioner Tony Lourey resigned the post.
The news of Lourey's departure comes days after two DHS deputy commissioners resigned from the department without a public explanation and after the Walz administration came under fire for the slow pace at which it was investigating an inspector placed on leave.
In his letter of resignation, Lourey, a former state senator, said he was proud of the work the department was able to accomplish and felt he needed to step down to allow for the success of DHS and the state's social safety net. The department serves more than 1 million Minnesotans by providing services like child support and food assistance.
"I believe a new leader is necessary to best execute your vision for human services and continue the critical work of improving the health of Minnesotans across the state," Lourey wrote in his resignation letter to Walz.
Lourey's resignation was set to take effect at the end of the day Monday and his replacement, Pam Wheelock, was expected to start as acting commissioner on Tuesday. Wheelock, a former commissioner of finance in the Ventura administration, deputy mayor of St. Paul and chief operating officer at Twin Cities Habitat has extensive experience working in state and local government, as well as in health care. She is also a former interim president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota.
“I am grateful that Pam Wheelock has offered to step in to serve as commissioner while we find a permanent replacement,” Walz said in a news release. “With decades of experience in the public, private, and philanthropic sectors, I know the top-notch team at DHS will appreciate Pam’s leadership as much as I do.”
Walz said he learned of Lourey's intention to resign Sunday evening when the two met for a face-to-face conversation and Walz didn't ask him to step down during that exchange.
“There’s going to be a desire to find more drama than is there, those of you that know me know that I don’t do drama,” Walz told reporters. “I will take Commissioner Lourey at his word that he felt he was not the right person at this time."
On Friday, July 12, DHS deputy commissioners Chuck Johnson and Claire Wilson abruptly resigned their posts but didn't explain why. A day prior, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported that the state hadn't yet begun an investigation of Carolyn Ham, a top investigator of child care fraud at DHS. Ham was placed on leave four months ago following a report that found some fraud in the state's child care assistance program. Ham received $42,000 in that timeframe despite being on leave from the post.
Walz told reporters that Johnson and Wilson resigned because they disagreed with the management of DHS. It wasn't immediately clear whether the two would rescind their resignations following Lourey's departure.
Walz also said the investigation into Ham and her role at the department had started but he didn't know when it started. Lourey's departure didn't have to do with reported fraud in the state's child care assistance program and efforts to investigate that, the DFL governor said.
Republican lawmakers said the shake-up at the department that accounts for about one-third of state government spending signaled a scandal that could be rectified with transparency and additional oversight.
"If there is no fraud then prove it, if there is no scandal behind the resignations of these three people, then be transparent and prove it. Let's know everything that there is to know about why this is happening," House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said. "What we want to know now is what caused this so that we can prevent this from happening again.”
State Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee and she said the state needs to take a "radical look" at the way the department is structured and consider breaking off certain sectors housed under the department. She also suggested inviting private industry leaders to review the department's management.
“Sometimes we need to step out of our comfort zone," Benson said, "government is not always the answer to everything.”