Courier Staff Writer
Ignoring a problem will rarely make it go away. Worse is trying to convince everyone else to go away and ignore a problem; that approach seems to draw more attention.
“I’m very, very irritated with the Department of Labor,” said U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley.
The Republican was in Ottumwa Wednesday to visit the Ottumwa Job Corps Center on his annual tour of Iowa’s 99 counties. Grassley is one of the elected officials credited with helping Wapello County get the multi-million dollar center and the accompanying 100-plus jobs.
A congressional liaison from DOL had called his office with what he called “new” rules. Late Tuesday, his office received instructions from the U.S. Department of Labor: Grassley could have his town hall meeting at the Ottumwa Job Corps Center. But if he wanted to talk to the press, he’d have to leave the property.
In fact, for the first time since construction started at the site, members of the media were denied permission to come on the property with a camera. Reporters either didn’t attend the town hall meeting, or did so with the order that they could not ask questions of the senator, Job Corps staff or bring any recording device with them.
“Don’t blame the people locally,” said Grassley, explaining those orders came from the Department of Labor.
And he’s not pleased that the public is being shut out of any conversations about current DOL restrictions on enrollment at Job Corps centers nationally, including Ottumwa.
Grassley said clamming up to avoid discussing financial decisions they’ve made is a bad idea for a taxpayer-funded entity.
Grassley said if mistakes have been made, let’s fix them. Ignoring them isn’t going to resolve any shortcomings. Some sort of action needs to be taken, including assistance from those within the Labor Department.
“If this is because they’re embarrassed over mistakes,” Grassley said, “they can’t ... pull their head in like a turtle,” Grassley said.
Except on national security issues, Grassley said, he prefers to do business in the open, where the public and the press can see what is going on. Even when talking to the young people at Job Corps, he told them it was their chance to ask anything, even if it’s “to put me on the spot.” When a young trainee asked if he preferred to be called Chuck or Charles, he said he went by Chuck.
“Because when my wife calls me Charles, she’s mad,” Grassley told the student.
Afterwards, he drove over to a nearby state government building to borrow their parking lot for a press conference.
“I don’t appreciate [being forced] to meet with the press in a parking lot on a 30-degree Iowa day,” he said Wednesday morning.
A state official allowed Grassley to use the foyer of the building to speak with reporters.
The DOL’s reason for their new restriction, that his presence constituted a political event, was nonsense, he said. Nobody is campaigning now.
“It’s four years until the next election,” he said. “I was invited by the Job Corps Center; I’m here on official business.”
He toured the facility, talked to staff and took questions from students. He said all were aware of a letter he’d sent to the Department of Labor with some tough questions. A young lady training at Job Corps told him that because of the enrollment freeze, she can take the basic Certified Nursing Assistant course but can’t continue on into the nursing program.
“The Department of Labor has shut down enrollment during a time of high unemployment,” Grassley said. “That’s not the right decision to make.”
So why did the federal department make such a decision, and how did they spend the money set aside for the Job Corps program? Was there mismanagement of taxpayer money? Grassley said he asked the same questions. He has not received an answer from the department.
In fact, other congressional leaders have sent written inquiries to the DOL, ranging from requests for information to angrily worded demands for action.
“The [enrollment freeze] wasn't justified,” said Grassley, before promising, “We’re going to get answers.”