LINCOLN — Nebraska Health and Human Services officials plan to alert 563 employees this week about a review of their disciplinary records by the State Auditor's Office.
All of those getting the alert letters had some type of disciplinary action within the past 24 months. The auditor's review included looking at those disciplinary records in employees' personnel files.
Matt Clough, the HHS chief operating officer, ended the letter saying: “I regret this intrusion on your personnel records.”
But State Auditor Mike Foley called the review part of a routine audit and blasted the agency for sending out the alerts.
“I think it's a waste of time and money to send that letter out, but HHS is famous for that, and I'm not the least bit surprised,” he said. “In the next administration, that will be stopped.”
Foley, a Republican, is a candidate for governor. He has clashed with Gov. Dave Heineman over his critical audits of state agencies.
State law gives the Auditor's Office authority to look at personnel records, while requiring confidentiality.
Foley would not speculate on whether politics played a role in the HHS decision to send out the letters.
For his part, Clough questioned why the auditor had undertaken the review.
“Does he have a political motive in looking at 563 disciplinary records at an agency he has vowed in public to take apart brick by brick?” he asked.
Foley made that pledge when he launched his campaign last month.
Clough said agency officials decided to send the letters because of the number of employees' records reviewed. HHS employs about 5,600.
He said officials wanted to take “the moral high ground” and let employees know that the files had been viewed. The officials also wanted to reassure workers that state law protects the confidentiality of their personnel files.
The review of HHS disciplinary records was done by Mary Avery, a 30-year veteran of the auditing staff. It was completed in August.
Foley said Avery looked at the records to see whether employee misbehavior had any financial implications for the agency.
Auditing standards require auditors to look into allegations of impropriety that might have financial consequences, he said, noting that his staff has looked at employees' records in the past.
“If we did not do that, we would be derelict in our duties,” he said.
Foley said the review was helpful to his office in understanding financial deficiencies at HHS. The results of the audit are not yet available.
Clough confirmed that the Auditor's Office has looked at employees' records in previous audits. The agency never alerted employees then.
He said this year's review was different because of its scope.
In the past, the auditor had to ask for each record individually. This year, a new computerized personnel system allowed auditors to pull up all disciplinary records.
Officials provided Avery with access to the personnel database for about six weeks. Clough said HHS did not know what she had been looking at until after she was finished and agency staff traced her work electronically.
It then took some time for officials to decide how to handle the situation, he said.
“We didn't want to have a knee-jerk response to this,” Clough said.
Correction: Matt Clough was incorrectly identified in a previous version of this story.