State human services official who quit, then stayed, resigns again

Published 8:12 pm Monday, August 26, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS — One of the top leaders at the troubled Minnesota Department of Human Services has resigned for a second time from her position at the largest state agency, just weeks after she rescinded her original resignation, officials said Monday.

Deputy Commissioner Claire Wilson’s last day will be Friday, Acting Commissioner Pam Wheelock announced in an email to staffers that was first reported on by the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Wilson was one of two deputy commissioners who resigned abruptly in July, precipitating the equally abrupt departure of Tony Lourey as commissioner a few days later, just six months into the job. The department never provided a full public explanation for the turmoil, but Gov. Tim Walz said at the time that Lourey, a former state senator, thought the agency needed “someone with a different skill set.”

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Wilson and Deputy Commissioner Chuck Johnson later accepted Wheelock’s request to stay on and help steady the agency. The department’s woes have included documented fraud within its Child Care Assistance Program for low-income working parents, a stalled investigation of the department’s inspector general, apparent overpayments of federal money to two tribes for substance abuse treatment services, and data breaches, among others.

“It was my priority on my first day at DHS to meet with the deputy commissioners to ask them to stay during my tenure,” Wheelock said in her email. “Deputy Commissioner Claire Wilson agreed to do that, knowing that it would provide stability and continuity during a time of leadership change, but has reaffirmed that at the end of my tenure she will be leaving DHS as well.”

Wheelock also said Johnson will retain his post when Jodi Harpstead , the chief executive of Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, takes over as commissioner Sept. 3. Walz appointed her earlier this month, turning to an executive with experience managing large organizations.

Neither Wheelock nor Wilson shed much light on the reasons for the upheaval in their separate emails to staff Monday, however Wheelock indicated while testifying at a legislative hearing on the turmoil this month that their reasons for leaving were personal and were not because of any impropriety.

Wilson wrote that “these past several weeks have been personally and professionally difficult, but it was important to me to fulfill my commitment to stay on through Commissioner Wheelock’s tenure. Working with her has been such a privilege, and I am grateful I had the opportunity to support her and the agency during this time of transition.”

The agency controls nearly one-third of state spending — about $18 billion state and federal dollars annually — and has the equivalent of nearly 6,800 full time employees. It serves about 1 million residents, including the poor, young, elderly, physically disabled and mentally ill. Only schools get a bigger share of funding.