Iowa CIO sweating confirmation

Iowa Information Technology Department

Questions about spending practices and opposition from a lobbying group

may spoil Richard Varn's chances of being confirmed as Iowa's chief information

officer and director of the state's Information Technology Department.

Even though Varn has been the state CIO and head of the state's Information

Technology Services for the past two years, he faces confirmation because

ITS was elevated to the departmental level by law in April 2000.

Varn said he might not have the two-thirds vote of the 50-member state

Senate needed to confirm his nomination. "There's a few undecideds," he

said.

Normally, confirmations must be resolved by April 15, but the state

Senate has postponed a vote on his confirmation so that senators can consider

more information before deciding. If the Senate fails to act before the

session ends in two weeks, Varn's nomination would effectively be denied.

A nationally recognized expert on technology issues, Varn said no one

has objected to his qualifications and his accomplishments. He blames a

powerful lobbying group called Iowans for Tax Relief for the controversy.

"This group gave a half-million dollars in the last campaign cycle to

legislators, and they have a vendetta against me because of something I

did 15 years ago as a state senator," said Varn, a Democrat who previously

served eight years as a state senator and four years as state representative.

Republicans control the state Senate by a 30-20 margin, but Minority

Leader Michael Gronstal said he believed nearly half of the Republican caucus

supported Varn's nomination in addition to unanimous Democratic support.

He said he expected Varn to be confirmed.

Gronstal said it's not uncommon for several legislators to "press and

ask a lot of questions" when confirming gubernatorial appointees, but he

said Varn's case is unusual.

"I'd say this one's a little bit out of the ordinary because of the

powerful interest group that's throwing a lot of money around in the campaigns,"

Gronstal said. "It's not about qualifications. It's about an interest group

doing some very inappropriate things."

He also dismissed questions raised by some Republicans over Varn's purchase

of two stationary bicycles, costing $850, to boost morale and improve working

conditions in the department. "That kind of stuff is really, frankly, silliness,"

Gronstal said.

Senate President Mary Kramer, a Republican, said she doesn't think the

lobbying group is a factor and also dismissed the bicycle issue. "With people

that are sedentary all the time, [the bicycles] are probably a good thing,"

she said.

Calling Varn an "extremely bright and articulate person," she said his

qualifications were not in dispute. But she said some senators have questions

over the department's path, such as: "What's the direction this is going

and do we agree with it? What's our vision of technology...and whom are

we going to entrust to carry out that vision?"

Kramer said a vote is likely next week, before the session ends April

27.

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