Friday, August 12, 2022

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Civic Skinny

Hotel gains ground. Dorm rates rising. Who is Bob Wilson? The Bisignano case.


The planned convention hotel near the Hy-Vee center downtown is a step closer to reality.

Last week, Polk County completed the purchase of land where the hotel would go. The purchase of the old Allied Building and adjacent grounds was for $3,338,896. The seller was Des Moines Redevelopment Corp., a nonprofit consortium of local companies and individuals that assembled the site to hold it with the hope a hotel would be built there. Hurdles remain — there’s still a shortfall of several million dollars — but the purchase indicates things are moving forward.

Des Moines Redevelopment sold the parcel for what it had in it. It likely now will use the money to buy the YMCA riverfront site and hold it until a buyer comes along. …

Robert Wilson, the administrative law judge who Gov. Terry Branstad’s operatives allegedly jammed down the throat of the commissioners on the Public Employees Relations Board, is, if nothing else, a well-connected Republican.

But not always a successful one.

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Wilson was Branstad’s choice to be state workers compensation commissioner in 1990, but he never served. Labor didn’t think much of him, and the Iowa Senate, in a vote in 1991, refused to confirm him.

Not giving up, Branstad appointed him to the district court in 1995. And in 2001, his was one of four names Sen. Charles Grassley forwarded to George W. Bush as worthy candidates for an opening on the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. But he didn’t get that job, either. In a 2002 survey of lawyers by the Iowa State Bar Association, Wilson was among the five judges with the lowest approval ratings. He left the bench in 2003.

But old ties linger. So — according to departing PER Board chair Jim Riordan — Branstad wanted his old pal to be an administrative law judge at PERB, and Riordan testified last week that Branstad aides Jeff Boeyink and Brenna Findley said they’d cut the board’s budget if it didn’t hire Wilson. So Wilson was hired.

“He’s got some connection with Branstad that’s pretty tight,” says a Des Moines lawyer.

The allegations — which Branstad denies — are strikingly similar to allegations current workers compensation commissioner Chris Godfrey has made in a lawsuit against, among others, Branstad and Boeyink and Findley. They tried to fire Godfrey, who has a fixed term running into next year, and when that failed they cut his salary by around $30,000. That lawsuit, alleging defamation and discrimination and extortion, among other things, is working its way through the courts — at huge legal expense to the state, which hired outside lawyers to defend it.

One way to look at it: Branstad is trying to get rid of a workers comp commissioner who was twice overwhelmingly approved by the Senate in bipartisan votes — while hiring a would-be commissioner who was rejected by the Senate. Of course, Godfrey is a Democrat and is gay. Wilson is neither.

Meantime, Branstad last week gave up on his convoluted plan to make Jamie Van Fossen head of the PER Board. The plan, disclosed in Cityview a couple of weeks ago, was complicated — Van Fossen would leave the board now after two years of his four-year term and then be appointed to a four-year term as chairman, but the Senate apparently made it clear that it didn’t like that deal. So Van Fossen will remain as a member, and Mike Comack, another former Republican legislator, will become chair. Comack was confirmed unanimously. Still, the three-person board ends up with no Democrats on it — with the two former Republican legislators and an independent with close ties to the GOP. …

Last week’s plurality opinion in the Iowa Supreme Court case to determine whether Tony Bisignano is eligible to run for the Legislature is nothing if not confusing.

Justice David Wiggins’ dissent was clear: The Constitution is the Constitution, the law is the law and precedent is precedent, he said, and thus Bisignano — convicted of the aggravated misdemeanor of second-offense drunk driving — should not be eligible to run. By Constitutional definition, he wrote, an aggravated misdemeanor is an “infamous crime,” and those convicted of infamous crimes are barred from voting under the Constitution.

The concurring opinion, by Justice Ed Mansfield and joined by Justice Thomas Waterman, was equally clear. “I think there are ample grounds for holding that our constitution, in its current form, disqualified felons and only felons from voting and holding public office,” Mansfield wrote. That’s what lawyers call a bright line — a clear division between right and wrong.

But the plurality opinion, written by Chief Justice Mark Cady and joined by Justices Daryl Hecht and Bruce Zager, has no lines, bright or dim. Conceding precedent was on Chiodo’s side, Cady nevertheless wrote that “infamous crime” should be defined by the crime, not the punishment. An “infamous crime” must be “particularly serious” — second-offense OWI is not, he said — and all infamous crimes must therefore be felonies. But he didn’t stop there. All felonies, he added, are not necessarily infamous crimes. He offered no further guidance.

The ruling amounts to a full-employment act for civil-rights lawyers. “I think the plurality has unnecessarily introduced uncertainty and invited future litigation over voting rights. For example, I anticipate we will now see right-to-vote lawsuits from current prison inmates,” Mansfield wrote. Wiggins wrote that the decision is so vague that a person “who has committed a crime has no idea as to whether he or she is eligible to vote.”

And a lawyer who watched the case says:

“What is the law?…The Anamosa State Penitentiary houses nearly 1,200 offenders. That is more than the number of voters in the 2012 Republican Primary [in Jones County] that selected Representative Lee Hein. The Democrats did not even field a challenger. What happens if they all register to vote? Conceivably, they could decide the nomination, including choosing a fellow inmate to be the nominee.” …

The Board of Regents plans to freeze tuition at state universities again this year, but don’t think you won’t be paying more for your sons or daughters to go to school. The University of Iowa plans to raise residence-hall rates as much as 4.5 percent next year. Iowa State plans increases of 1.5 percent, and the University of Northern Iowa around 3 percent. At Iowa, a single room with air-conditioning and a shared bath will cost $9,639 next year. …

As predicted here three weeks ago — and reported by The Des Moines Register on Friday — that big new Microsoft data center will be built on what is now the south part of Willow Creek Golf Course. Willow Creek is just a five-iron or so from the Register’s printing plant. …

Missing from the Register stories about editorial writer Andie Dominick being a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prizes announced last week: The fact that she had resigned just before the announcement. CV


Comment: Voting Felons

Last week’s Iowa Supreme Court decision involving Ned Chiodo and Tony Bisignano was fascinating — as the accompanying column shows — but an aside from Justice Ed Mansfield was even more so.

Mansfield, joined by his conservative colleague Thomas Waterman, wrote a concurring opinion, agreeing that Bisignano could stay on the ballot but offering some harsh words for the three-justice plurality decision written by Chief Justice Mark Cady. Mansfield called that decision “an odd mix of half-hearted originalism and excessive fealty to a court decision from Indiana.”

But along the way — and seemingly out of nowhere — Mansfield added, “I believe that convicted felons who have served their sentence and paid their debt to society ought to be able to vote, without requiring dispensation from the governor. By permanently disenfranchising convicted felons, Iowa puts itself in a small minority of three states.”

That was a shot across the bow of Gov. Terry Branstad, the man who put Mansfield and Waterman on the court in 2011 presumably because of their conservative views. Branstad has resisted all efforts to routinely return voting rights to felons who have served their time. He reversed the policies of Govs. Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver, who issued executive orders that automatically restored voting rights to released felons, and issued his own order permanently disenfranchising released felons from voting without his approval. He has granted relatively few approvals. (The Iowa Constitution bars these felons from voting, but in 2005 a state court upheld Vilsack’s proposal to automatically grant such rights through an executive order.)

And Mansfield’s comments probably weren’t welcomed by Republican Secretary of State (and Congressional candidate) Matt Schultz, who seems to have spent the last three years using tax dollars and hiring investigators to turn over rocks and pebbles in search of felons who voted illegally. So far, he has found 26 among the 1,912,937 active voters in the state, though some of those cases were quickly dismissed. Along the way, he stopped at least a dozen legitimate voters from voting.

Mansfield’s view doesn’t mean he’d rule that felons automatically get back their rights if a case came to the Iowa Supreme Court. “My personal views do not carry weight when it comes to interpreting the Iowa Constitution,” he noted. But considering who he is and where he sits, his personal views are worth noting.

Or should be. Especially if you’re the Governor. CV

— Michael Gartner

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