Questions abound after leadership changes at Human Services Department

Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey has resigned.
Gov. Tim Walz announced Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey's resignation Monday, days after news of the departure of two top deputies.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News file

There's turmoil at Minnesota's Department of Human Services after Gov. Tim Walz accepted the resignation of Tony Lourey, the agency's commissioner, on Sunday night. That was just days after Lourey's top two deputies announced their imminent resignation. The departures just six months into the Walz administration leave a vacuum of leadership at the helm of the state's largest agency.

"Picture that puppy you see as a GIF and it says it's fine and meanwhile all around the puppy there's fire. That's Gov. Walz saying it's fine. Meanwhile the Department of Human Services is under siege," said Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria.

Franson spoke at a press conference that was already scheduled by Republican legislators on Monday to address reports last week that two deputy commissioners were suddenly leaving Human Services. The deputies — Chuck Johnson and Claire Wilson — had more than three decades of experience between them.

Lourey wasn't talking publicly Monday, but Walz said he wasn't forced out.

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"This is a dedicated public servant who I think had self-awareness and looked at this and said, you know, it's going to take a little different leadership style to bring this agency into where you want to be," said Walz.

Walz thanked Lourey for helping him usher a difficult health and human services budget through the process last session, but he said Lourey told him the agency needs a different manager going forward.

There are still lots of questions about what exactly happened. Walz confirmed the two deputies who planned to leave met with his chief of staff to talk about their concerns. But neither they nor the governor were talking about what those concerns were, and Walz couldn't say whether those two deputies were coming back now that Lourey is out.

During the legislative session earlier this year the department came under fire over fraud in the state's Child Care Assistance Program.

Inspector General Carolyn Ham was put on paid leave over the fraud pending an investigation, but the investigation apparently didn't begin until this week. Walz said that didn't have anything to do with Lourey's departure.

"There's going to be a desire to find more dramas than is there," Walz said. "Those of you who know me know I don't do drama."

There's also a political dimension to Lourey's departure. Walz pulled Lourey from a state Senate controlled by Republicans by a single vote. Democrats lost a special election to replace him, giving Republicans a larger majority last session.

Walz said he doesn't regret appointing Lourey to the job.

"I'm not going to be naive and tell you that you don't think about the politics with this," he said. "Tony Lourey was the best person that we had at the time with the circumstances where they were for that position."

And it's unclear what's next for the agency. It's the largest employer in state government and serves 1.2 million people, including some of the state's most vulnerable populations.

Walz has appointed Pam Wheelock to take over in the interim. She has a long resume in the private and public sector. She worked as budget commissioner under Jesse Ventura and held top jobs at the University of Minnesota, Blue Cross and Blue Shield and the Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity.

Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, who chairs the Senate committee that oversees the department's budget, said the shake-up is a chance for Walz to take a fresh look at how the Human Services Department is run. She's suggested in the past breaking up the massive agency into several parts.

"Obviously there is a significant cultural issue that needs to be remedied. I would encourage the governor to support his interim appointment by having private sector experts come forward to assist," Benson said. "We can't have the same cast of characters if we are going to change this department that serves a million Minnesotans."