Largest county government in Iowa faces scandal, infighting
By RYAN J. FOLEY
Vulgar comments and slurs. Political favoritism in hiring and contracts. Secretly recorded and eavesdropped conversations.
Leaders of the board that runs Iowa’s largest county are facing explosive allegations from its fired Human Resources director and one of their own colleagues, a prominent Democrat who on Wednesday took the unusual step of suing the county he helps lead.
They depict the Polk County Board of Supervisors in court documents as “toxic” and “dysfunctional,” among whom political infighting and unprofessional behavior are the norm.
At issue is whether Supervisor Matt McCoy contributed to those problems or is the victim of a plot to drive him out of office for trying to clean them up. McCoy is accused of making a crude and violent comment about a colleague in a private meeting that she overheard — an allegation he calls a smear cooked up by his opponents to try to destroy his political career.
“There has been no due process and efforts to extort and libel me have been the daily order of business at Polk County,” McCoy said in a statement. “There was a serious effort to convince witnesses to change their statements to state that I did in fact make those comments; and then ultimately remove me from office.”
McCoy filed a motion Wednesday to intervene in a wrongful termination lawsuit against the county and board. Former HR director Jim Nahas filed the lawsuit after he was fired and accused of dishonesty for telling internal investigators he did not recall hearing McCoy make the alleged comments.
Both claim they were libeled by the public release of Nahas’ termination letter, which included McCoy’s purported comments, and were the victims of extortion attempts during the internal investigation. They say they were threatened to either admit McCoy made the comments or that Nahas would lose his job and the county would not defend McCoy against any legal claims stemming from them.
McCoy, a former Democratic state lawmaker from Des Moines and one of Iowa’s first openly gay politicians, promised to reform the county’s culture of cronyism in 2018 when he challenged and defeated the board’s longtime powerful chairman Johnny Mauro in a primary. He joined a five-member board that is controlled 3-2 by Democrats. The other members had each held their positions for more than a decade.
McCoy said he has pushed to end no-bid contracts, routine nepotism, the use of county resources for political campaigning, and a “hostile and toxic work environment” in county offices. He said he has met with resistance and that at least one colleague who used “homophobic slurs” said he would rather “hit me in the face than work with me.”
Long-running tensions between board members erupted last year during the process that led to the hiring of Democratic activist John Norris as the county administrator. McCoy had favored a county employee, Frank Marasco.
McCoy met with Nahas and Marasco to discuss county business on Oct. 6, 2020, shortly after learning that Norris had the votes to be hired. Acting county administrator Sarah Boese claims she overhead their conversation from another room and that McCoy used crude and violent language in blaming her for the appointment, and that he pledged retaliation.
McCoy and Marasco both deny that McCoy made the comment and Nahas has said he has no recollection of such statements.
After Boese reported McCoy’s alleged comments, a county investigation led to the firing of Nahas, concluding that his claims that he didn’t hear or remember McCoy making them weren’t credible.
In his wrongful termination lawsuit filed last week, Nahas argues that he and McCoy were targeted because of their efforts to clean up county government.
Nahas alleges that Supervisor Tom Hockensmith and Board Chairwoman Angela Connolly, both Democrats, plotted “a course of action they felt would result in maximum political damage to McCoy” after learning of Boese’s complaint.
Nahas says investigators repeatedly pressured him to say McCoy made the statements, and that investigators secretly recorded their conversations. He theorizes that board members are planning to use taxpayer money to settle a legal claim with Boese over McCoy’s remarks but will time the settlement to harm McCoy in next year’s election.
Nahas’ lawsuit alleges investigators were unwilling to accept the idea that “the eavesdropper was mistaken” or that Nahas wasn’t listening. He told them that profanities are often used in the office and that vulgar statements “go in one ear and out of the other.”