Saturday, January 29, 2022

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Civic Skinny

Lawyers, politicians: Settle the Chris Godfrey case. And a bad weekend for two Channel 13 reporters.


The state is nuts if it doesn’t try to settle the Chris Godfrey lawsuit right away.

And the six present or former state officials who are defendants — who now are at risk for damages and legal fees — are nuts if they don’t demand the state settle.

So say lawyers and politicians who have been following the two-year-old case in which the Branstad administration has waged a costly and ham-handed fight to get rid of its only openly gay executive. With the key question now settled by Friday’s Supreme Court ruling, trial preparations can resume — with well-timed depositions becoming a sideshow for this fall’s elections.

The single issue before the Iowa Supreme Court was clearcut: Who is to decide whether Gov. Terry Branstad and five other state officials were acting within the scope of their employment when — among other things — they allegedly harassed, defamed, extorted and discriminated against Godfrey?

Deputy Attorney General Jeff Thompson had issued a one-paragraph opinion that whatever the officials did they did in their official duties. The opinion meant Godfrey could sue the state, but not the individuals. That narrowed the charges he could bring and restricted his options in pursuing his claims. And it protected the six individuals against exposure for damages and legal fees.


Godfrey asked the Supreme Court to review that single issue, putting the case on hold. The court agreed to do that. And Friday, in an opinion written by Justice David Wiggins, five of the seven justices said it should be up to the “fact-finder” — in Godfrey’s case, a district-court jury — to determine whether the officials acted within the scope of their employment, not up to the Attorney General.

So suddenly, Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, gubernatorial counsel Brenna Findley, former Branstad chief of staff Jeff Boeyink, former Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht and Director of Iowa Workforce Development Teresa Wahlert again face charges individually as well as in their official capacities. And they must go through the entire trial — and all its costly pre-trial depositions and preparations — before they find out whether they or the state are paying the costs.

They are all defended by George LaMarca and his colleagues at LaMarca and Landry, who so far have collected $525,591.08 of taxpayer money, which is astonishing in itself. LaMarca’s job just got infinitely tougher and more complex. He now has to convince a jury that everything the six individuals did they did within their normal scope of duties. Some lawyers not involved in the case wonder how LaMarca can continue to represent the state and the individual defendants now that their interests could easily diverge.

Now that they might be on the hook for their actions — in terms of damages and legal fees — might not they want their own lawyers? What if, say, Wahlert says Boeyink ordered her to create “a hostile working environment” after Godfrey refused the governor’s demand to resign as Workers’ Compensation Commissioner before his fixed term was up? Or Boeyink says Findley told him to retaliate against Godfrey and cut his salary to the bare minimum of $73,500 from the $112,068.84 he had been making? Or Findley says Branstad told her to claim Godfrey was a poor worker? How does one firm argue all those positions?

But whether there’s one lawyer or seven, if the jury ultimately says the actions were not within the scope of their duties, those five people themselves will have to pay the lawyers — and any damages as well.

That’s why they should pressure the state to settle, lawyers and politicians tell Cityview. The state, not the individuals, would pay any settlement. That would include any legal fees — and surely Roxanne Conlin wouldn’t settle for any less than LaMarca has been paid — as well as damages sustained by Godfrey. It’s a fact that the Governor cut his salary, and Conlin could argue that the Branstad team messed with Godfrey’s head and sullied his reputation. A settlement probably would cost around $1 million.

Without a settlement, Conlin now can press ahead on the case, which had been on hold. Now, she can begin taking depositions — and creating a sideshow around this year’s elections.

Conlin, who lost to Branstad in the 1982 gubernatorial elections, plans to take his deposition, and she’ll surely do that before Nov. 5. A lot of people — operatives of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jack Hatch among them — would pay a lot of money to be in that room. The depositions, which will be made public, can’t help the governor politically, coming on top of a list of administration gaffes that pass for scandals in Iowa. The others will all be deposed, too, meaning more legal bills that someone — the defendants or the taxpayers — will have to pay. Conlin herself is as aggressive a biller as she is a lawyer, and it’s a safe bet that if the case goes to trial and she wins she’ll submit bills of close to $1 million — or more — to the court. LaMarca, who gets $375 an hour and must have his bills publicly voted on by the Executive Council (which includes his client Branstad), will have to step up his lawyering, too.

The case will be tried in the Polk County courtroom of Judge Robert Hutchison. No trial date has been set. …

Look for Kum & Go to buy the old Crescent Chevrolet building at 17th and Linden and build a store there, which is near the headquarters the company plans to build on Grand Avenue just west of Wellmark.

“We are currently working through the due-diligence process with the City of Des Moines,” a Kum & Go spokeswoman told Cityview. “Although we are in the early stages of the process, our intent is to build a model store and potential training facility on this property that complements Kum & Go’s future Store Support Center on Locust Street.” The old Crescent building is assessed at $789,000 and sits on 1.3 acres, almost all of the block between 16th and 17th streets and Linden and High Streets. It currently is owned by a limited-liability company called Woody1, which bought it from a trust of one-time Crescent owner Jim Piggott for $995,000 in 2008. Randy Minear, the president of Terrus Real Estate, is the registered agent for Woody1. …

Believe it or not: A tiny group of people are convinced Iowa has a shot at getting the Obama presidential library. Really. They are quietly seeking money to prepare a proposal to build the library in Ames, on property owned by Iowa State University. Really. They are dead serious. Really. They think President Obama will put his library at a university run by people who say, among other things, that the state should “speak with one voice on agriculture.” Really.

Ann Campbell is mayor of Ames. Rahm Emmanuel is mayor of Chicago. Cityview is betting on Rahm. …

It wasn’t a great weekend for Channel 13 folks.

skinny photoAt 1:09 a.m. on Saturday, anchor and reporter Sonya Heitshusen, 47, was arrested and jailed for first offense drunken driving.

From the police report: “The defendant was observed by Sergeant Bender (after he was flagged down by several pedestrians) driving on the wrong side of the roadway. When she was stopped she admitted to consuming two beers prior to driving and then refused to submit to any [sobriety tests]. The defendant had bloodshot watery eyes, slurred and deliberate speech, a strong odor of alcohol from her breath, and a staggered and swaying gait. She refused to submit to testing after the implied consent was read.”

Twenty-four hours earlier, at 1:01 a.m. on Friday, Channel 13 reporter Erik Wheater also was arrested for first offense drunken driving.

Wheater, 25, was stopped at East 2nd and Grand for not having a front license plate on his car. From the police report: “He smelled of alcohol and had watery…and bloodshot eyes. He admitted to drinking. Wheater failed sobriety tests and tested over .08 on the [breath test]. He was arrested. At the police station, he was read the implied consent advisory. He refused a breath test and a urine test.” He also was jailed. CV

Comment: The dissent

Justices Ed Mansfield and Thomas Waterman dissented in the Godfrey case. They wrote separate dissents but joined one another in each dissent.

“Instead of getting an early determination one way or the other that their liability will or will not be covered by the state,” Waterman wrote, “state employees are left hanging until trial or summary judgment with respect to the uncovered claims.”

Indeed. That’s the way the court system works. Why should it work differently for public employees?

And: “This will create a strong incentive for public officials to clam up and not participate in press conferences or allow media interviews. …[The ruling] will have a chilling effect on the willingness of state officials to answer questions about official actions or pending legislation.”

It won’t, of course.

Unless they’re lying. CV
— Michael Gartner

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