Tony Bisignano’s case: Anatomy of an OWI, a messy and odd detour on way to election.7/23/2014
What do you do if you’re a politician picked up for drunken driving? How does it all play out? Here’s how it played out — sometimes minute by minute — when Tony Bisignano was stopped for driving erratically in the early hours of Monday, Sept. 30, last year.
It’s a tale of a bad break and, then, a lot of good ones.
Bisignano, 62, a former legislator and a long-time Polk County employee who is head of the county’s department of Human Resources, had a few months earlier announced he would seek the Democratic nomination for the Iowa Senate seat being vacated by gubernatorial candidate Jack Hatch. The race would turn ugly — Bisignano and fellow candidate Ned Chiodo, another long-time Southside Democratic politician, can’t stand each other — and one aspect of the fight ultimately would end up in the Iowa Supreme Court.
Here’s the account.
Monday, Sept. 30, 12:58 a.m. Altoona policeman Brent Chambers sees Bisignano’s 2011 black Mercedes weaving down First Avenue South, crossing the center line and then crossing back into the bike lane. He clocks the car at 44 miles an hour in a 35 mph zone, and he sees that the registration had expired in May.
Chambers pulls the car over, and he notices that Bisignano smells of alcohol, has bloodshot and red and watery eyes and slurred and mumbled speech. Getting out of the car, he has “impaired, unsteady, staggering balance.” He fails the field sobriety tests and shows a preliminary breath test of 0.110 percent alcohol, well above the threshold of 0.08 percent for operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated. Bisignano says he had had three beers. He says he is lost and was trying to find Prairie Meadows, though he was driving in the opposite direction.
“Is this bad?” he asks Chambers. “I’m running for the Senate, this just kills my campaign.” “Is this bad?” he repeats. He tells the officer that he’s the head of human resources for the county and asks if he can just “get a warning.” “Afraid not,” Chambers replies.
He is taken to the police station.
Monday, 1:30 a.m. At the police station, Bisignano is booked and charged with first offense drunken driving. He is told he can contact anyone on his cell phone.
1:35 a.m. Bisignano calls his wife.
1:36 a.m. He calls his wife again.
1:40 a.m. He calls his wife a third time.
1:42 a.m. His wife calls him. The call lasts two minutes.
1:44 a.m. He calls Frank Marasco, a top employee in the office of Polk County Sheriff Bill McCarthy.
1:49 a.m. He gets a four-minute call from a phone registered to S. Hobbs. He had called that phone twice in the 20 minutes before his arrest. Bisignano has a friend in West Des Moines named Sherrelle Hobbs, who is in her early 20s. On Jan. 6 of 2013, he wished “happy birthday little sweetheart” to her on her Facebook page. It’s unclear if that is the S. Hobbs he has called.
1:55 a.m. He calls Frank Marasco again. The call lasts one minute.
1:57 a.m. Marasco calls him back, again for a minute.
2:06 a.m. Bisignano is given a breath test, which shows a blood alcohol content of 0.099 percent.
2:30 a.m. Bisignano is fingerprinted and, in a piece of good luck, released on a citation for first offense OWI instead of being sent to Polk County jail. Whether to give a citation or send a person to jail is up to the arresting police department. Usually, the option is jail. “Normally, 99.9999 percent of everybody we arrest for OWI goes straight to jail,” the desk officer tells Bisignano, “but we’re going to release you on citation.” The officer explains, though, that Bisignano is still charged with drunk driving. “That’s going to kill what I’m doing. This takes me completely out. It’s a disaster,” Bisignano haltingly responds and notes that as a legislator he would fight hard for police pensions. “This hurts you, too,” he tells the officer.
Asked why Bisignano was released on citation instead of being sent to jail, Altoona police chief Jody Materly said that, first of all, “the officer was not speaking factually.” While “many persons go to jail,” the chief said, “it is much less than 99.99 percent.” The chief also said “we allow officer discretion for issuance of citations….In this case, Mr. Bisignano met the criteria for release, in the officer’s opinion, which I support.”
Bisignano is released to Kevin Schneider, also an employee of the Sheriff’s Department.
Asked about the involvement of two of his employees, Sheriff McCarthy said: “I’m aware that both Mr. Marasco and Mr. Schneider know Mr. Bisignano outside of work and they have been open about their relationship. I can tell you that neither of them were representing the Polk County Sheriff’s Office in any capacity, nor were either of them on duty during the course of these events. Kevin Schneider advises that he drove his personal vehicle when he picked up his friend Mr. Bisignano from the Altoona Police Department and delivered him to Mr. Bisignano’s residence. The Polk County Sheriff’s Office did not make the arrest nor authorize the release. My assessment is that Mr. Bisignano was not treated any different than anyone else finding themselves in a similar situation.”
3:18 a.m. Bisignano gets a seven-minute call from the phone registered to S. Hobbs.
1:43 p.m. Bisignano calls Jennifer Jacobs, a reporter for The Des Moines Register. The call lasts seven minutes.
9:17 p.m. Jacobs sends Bisignano an email with her proposed story on his arrest, an unusual newsroom practice. “Read please,” it says. The story points out Bisignano was twice before arrested for drunken driving and also was once charged “with possession of a loaded gun in connection with a Des Moines woman with whom he was having an affair.”
9:17 p.m. Jacobs calls Bisignano. The call lasts six minutes.
(The email article sent to Bisignano is virtually identical to the seven-paragraph story that appeared in the paper the next morning, though the last line in the emailed article was dropped. It had said, “Eight years ago, he created a foundation aimed at preventing youths from driving while intoxicated.”)
Oct. 8. Bisignano pleads not guilty to a charge of first offense OWI. His attorney is legislator Rick Olson.
Oct. 8. The Department of Transportation, having been advised of the arrest by the police department, administratively revokes the driver’s license of Bisignano for 180 days, standard practice for a first-offense OWI, which was the Altoona charge.
Oct. 30. The court schedules a jury trial for Jan. 6, 2014.
Dec. 9. Bisignano pleads guilty to second offense drunk driving. On Sept. 30, 2013, he writes on the petition to plead guilty, “I operated a motor vehicle in Polk County, Ia., while intoxicated having previously been convicted of OWI w/in the past 12 yrs of this occurrence. BAC .099.” Sentencing is set for Jan. 27, 2014.
Dec. 12. Bisignano posts a message on Facebook. “I have admitted to my transgressions in my life. I apologize for every indiscretion that I have committed….”
Jan. 27. Judge Carol Egly accepts the guilty plea, fines Bisignano the legal minimum of $1,875 (the maximum is $6,250), sentences him to two years of probation, 80 hours of community service and two years in prison. All but seven days of the prison sentence are suspended, and Bisignano is given credit for one day for the two hours he spent in the Altoona police station and for another four days for participating in OWI programs required of offenders.
The community service was “at a nonprofit that provides care for the needy,” according to Fred Scaletta, assistant director of the Iowa Department of Corrections. Beyond that, it is confidential “to protect the safety of the staff.” Similarly, he says, the name of the probation officer “is confidential since [the case] is closed.”
Jan. 27-29. Bisignano spends time in jail.
March 11. Bisignano files campaign papers with the Iowa Secretary of State.
March 29. Bisignano holds his campaign kickoff.
April 5. The DOT restores Bisignano’s driving rights. Here, Bisignano gets another piece of good luck. Bisignano pleaded guilty of second-offense OWI, and that carries a 360-day suspension of a driver’s license. Under the Iowa Code, second-offense is an arrest within 12 years of a prior conviction. He was found guilty on Nov. 29, 2001, which was within 12 years of his arrest on Sept. 30, 2013. Bisignano acknowledges that in his guilty plea.
But the DOT has something called administrative revocation, and that is what it bases its 12-year clock on. Bisignano’s license was administratively revoked when he was arrested in March of 2001, and the 12 years had run by the time he was arrested in September of 2013. So the records had been purged, and when notice of the most recent arrest arrived, there was nothing in his DOT file to indicate the new administrative revocation should be more than 180 days. Nor does a subsequent conviction of a second offense change that. “Iowa laws do not require any additional revocation as a result of a conviction if there has already been an administrative revocation” in the case, David Titcomb, a DOT compliance officer, says. That’s why Bisignano is driving today. He pleaded guilty and was convicted of second-degree OWI, but from the DOT’s computer’s viewpoint — which controls driving privileges — it was a first offense.
“Once an administrative revocation is imposed by law enforcement, the DOT does not have discretion to wait for the conviction to revoke,” Titcomb says.
April 15. Another good break. The Iowa Supreme Court rules Bisignano can remain a candidate, saying his conviction of second-offense driving while intoxicated is not an “infamous crime” that would bar him from running. “A strong argument can be made that Bisignano is disqualified from running for public office as well as participating in our democracy as a voter,” Chief Justice Mark Cady writes for the three-judge plurality. But “courts cannot blindly follow the past,” he writes, and “Anthony Bisignano’s name may appear on the ballot.” Justice David Wiggins dissents: “The plurality is rewriting nearly one hundred years of caselaw,” he says.
April 21. Bisignano is discharged from his two-year probation after less than four months, at the request of his probation officer. Judge Cynthia Moissan says she has “no independent recollection of the case,” but says the usual procedure is that a hearing would not be held. Asked about the unusually early release, County Attorney John Sarcone says his office “did not approve any discharge from probation. As far as we know, there was no hearing, and if there was we were not notified that there would be a hearing.”
Scaletta, of the Iowa Department of Corrections, says “the early discharge from probation was recommended due to successful participation and completion of required conditions of probation.” He cites Bisignano’s stable residence and employment, says it was determined no treatment program was necessary, and says Bisignano was a “low-risk offender.” “Low-risk offenders are pro-social individuals with low recidivism rates,” he adds. (In all, Bisignano has four alcohol-related convictions). He adds that “it was not necessary for the County Attorney’s Office to participate in the court’s review of the request for probation discharge.”
Last year, 3,266 offenders were released early in the Fifth District, according to Scaletta. That’s 40.5 percent out of a total of 8,056 discharges, Scaletta says.
April 23. Bisignano holds a fundraiser at the Standard Martini Bar downtown.
May 14. Bisignano holds a fundraiser at Tumea & Son’s, a restaurant and bar on S.E. First Street.
June 3. Bisignano wins three-way primary for Democratic nomination for Iowa Senate seat. He gets 1,443 votes, 18 more than the 1,425 votes for Nathan Blake, an assistant attorney general who had stayed above the fray in the Bisignano-Chiodo fight. Chiodo finishes third, with 1,002 votes. CV
Godfrey bills mount
The state’s executive council was scheduled to meet Monday. On the agenda: approval of an $8,741.24 bill from LaMarca & Landry, the law firm representing the state in the lawsuit filed by Workers’ Compensation Director Chris Godfrey. That raises the total paid to the firm to $534,332.32. Depositions are just being scheduled. The trial will be in the Polk County courtroom of Judge Robert Hutchison. No trial date has been set. CV