See more of the story

The head of Minnesota's Veterans Affairs on Tuesday explained his decision to remove two officials at the Hastings Veterans Home after allegations of a toxic work environment at the facility.

Department Commissioner Larry Herke told the Minnesota Senate State and Local Government and Veterans Committee the decision to remove two top officials came after implementing a 10-point improvement plan months ago and seeing not enough positive change in the workplace.

"We were knocking down items on the plan, but I wasn't seeing a big change as it related to the culture, and that was the reason I took the action this last weekend and decided we needed to go with different leadership in order to make a more comprehensive change in culture," he said.

While he did not lay out every allegation about the culture at Hastings — which included claims of hostile leadership and harassment — he touched on some, including past instances of sexual harassment at the facility and fears of retaliation if staff challenged supervisors.

Herke said he received the allegations from former, anonymous and current staff members nine months ago, and he said some allegations were already addressed or being addressed.

The two officials removed were Doug Hughes, the department's deputy commissioner, and Mike Anderson, administrator of the Hastings facility.

The plan included, among other steps, anti-bullying and anti-harassment training for staff, restarting a sexual harassment prevention workgroup by April, and conducting performance reviews for supervisors and managers.

But senators and former staff members at the hearing questioned if Herke's plan was enough. Hillary Grover, a former senior social worker at the facility, said the culture "runs deep" and beyond the two fired administrators.

Grover said in her career she had "never encountered such a toxic, hostile and abusive environment."

"Leadership did written and verbal attacks on me, and also had publicly shamed me several times in front of others," she said.

She added that leadership's goal was "to lead with fear and intimidation, not to support people to help them thrive." She said staff lashed out at her for advocating for a veteran and for setting boundaries about not working outside her job class.

One person alleged that staff members of color felt "roadblocked from any advancement in any role regardless of their résumé," said Sen. Nicole Mitchell, DFL-Woodbury, reading from a letter.

Sen. Mark Koran, R-North Branch, said he thinks the commissioner and other high-ranking officials need to spend more time at facilities and see how operations are carried out at Hastings.

"You're at the top of the food chain, and this all happened under your watch," Koran said. "I think something different has to be done."

Herke said he plans to have a permanent hire for both vacant positions within 120 days. Herke noted that he visited the Hastings facility Tuesday for listening sessions with staff and veterans.