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Tupac Shakur superfan fired from Iowa government job to file wrongful termination lawsuit

Jerry Foxhoven won't claim in his suit that he was ousted for his viral Tupac fandom, but rather for asking too many questions about an official's salary.
Jerry R. Foxhoven, executive director, Drake Legal Clinic, speaks at a meeting of the governor's task force at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo, Iowa on Sept. 18, 2013.
Jerry R. Foxhoven, executive director, Drake Legal Clinic, speaks at a meeting of the governor's task force at the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo, Iowa on Sept. 18, 2013.Charlie Litchfield / Des Moines Register via AP file

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The ousted Iowa Department of Human Services director will pursue a wrongful termination lawsuit, alleging he was let go after objecting to a pay arrangement for the governor's deputy chief of staff, his lawyer said Wednesday.

Jerry Foxhoven will file a whistleblower claim with the State Appeal Board, the first step toward pursuing a lawsuit against state government, his attorney Tom Duff said.

Foxhoven is expected to announce the action at a news conference Thursday. It's the latest development stemming from a personnel decision that has put Gov. Kim Reynolds on the defensive and prompted inquiries by state and federal watchdogs.

Foxhoven was asked to resign during a meeting with the governor's chief of staff, Sara Craig Gongol, in June. The governor's office didn't give a reason. Earlier this month, Reynolds' spokesman wouldn't confirm or deny whether Foxhoven's workplace praise for rapper Tupac Shakur played a role.

Foxhoven hosted weekly “Tupac Fridays” to play Shakur's music in the office. He traded lyrics with employees and he marked his own 65th birthday with Shakur-themed cookies, including ones decorated with the words “Thug life.”

He routinely sent messages to employees lauding Shakur’s music and lyrics even after at least one complained to lawmakers. Then last month, he sent another such email to all 4,300 agency employees. He was fired June 17, the first full business day after he sent the mass email.

After stories about Foxhoven's Tupac fandom and firing went viral, the governor said she'd never heard of the rap icon and that "of course" that wasn't the reason.

Reynolds suggested Tuesday she wanted to go in a different direction after two years of Foxhoven's leadership because of continued problems at the agency. She denied retaliation.

"I want to be clear, he never raised any concerns to me or my office about anything," said Reynolds, who appointed Gerd Clabaugh as the agency's interim director.

But Duff said Foxhoven will allege he was ousted after objecting to a request to have his department continue funding the salary of Paige Thorson, deputy chief of staff for Reynolds.

Foxhoven twice approved memorandums of understanding in which DHS covered 69 percent of Thorson's salary dating to Dec. 26, 2017. Duff said Foxhoven believed the arrangements made sense then because Thorson was working with Iowa's newly installed Medicaid director, Mike Randol, to help him transition into his role. The memos said Thorson would "provide strategic support for the department as agreed to" by DHS and the governor's office.

By earlier this year, Foxhoven believed that Thorson's arrangement should be discontinued in the fiscal year that was to begin July 1, because she was no longer needed to help Randol, Duff said.

Foxhoven told the governor's office Thorson was "really not doing anything that's furthering the business of DHS" and he wanted to stop her salary payments, Duff said.

Foxhoven wanted an opinion from the governor's legal adviser, Sam Langholz, but Gongol rebuffed that idea, Duff said. Foxhoven was going to ask assistant attorneys general who worked for DHS for their opinion once a trial they were working on concluded, but was asked to resign the day before he could make that request, Duff said.

Foxhoven was concerned that he would be blamed if an audit later found the arrangement was inappropriate, Duff said. He also objected to funding the salary of the governor's health adviser, Liz Matney, after lawmakers appropriated money for the position, but his primary concern was with Thorson, Duff said.

Duff said the retaliation claim will rely on precedents that say employees can't be fired for refusing to do something illegal or for threatening to disclose illegal conduct. Foxhoven was recently visited by a federal investigator and has met with State Auditor Rob Sand, Duff said.

The governor said Tuesday that she asked the department to review the salary arrangements with her aides to "make sure we're doing it accurately." A department spokesman said it recently identified a clerical error that "resulted in duplicate payments" for Thorson's salary in April and May and those were reversed.