Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and his staff were not involved in a decision to fire a veteran state investigator, according to an independent investigation by a former Iowa Supreme Court justice.
Former Chief Justice Louis Lavorato’s five-page report, released Wednesday, says Branstad and his staff did not interfere with a Department of Public Safety decision to fire Larry Hedlund, who had complained that a state trooper driving Branstad in April wasn’t stopped for speeding.
“Moreover, I found no direct evidence that those who took part in the investigation and in the decision to terminate Mr. Hedlund’s employment retaliated against him for his activities in reporting the speeding incident,” Lavorato wrote.
However, the justice noted that most retaliation claims are proved with circumstantial evidence, some of which he found in his month-long investigation.
Evidence “that might play a role on the issue of retaliation in connection with the speeding incident” includes Hedlund’s being put on leave just a few days after he complained about the speeding and his criticism of his superior’s actions for several months before the incident, Lavorato wrote.
Other factors include Hedlund’s 25 years of service without discipline, the severity of the discipline and whether there was unequal treatment for similar conduct, he wrote.
These issues must be decided in Polk County District Court, where Hedlund filed a wrongful termination lawsuit Aug. 8 against the state and several DPS leaders. The key may be whether Hedlund’s actions are protected under state whistleblower laws.
“If a jury does decide Mr. Hedlund’s actions constitute protected activities, then it is for the jury to decide whether Mr. Hedlund has proven his claim of retaliation,” Lavorato wrote.
Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, criticized the report.
“If Justice Lavorato had come back with anything other than a report backing up the governor, then that would have been a truly shocking news story,” Hatch said in a statement. “The governor got the result that he asked for, no surprise here. None of this passes the smell test. If this is what the Governor considers to be transparency, then it is apparent that the legislature should investigate immediately. No one in this state is above the law.”
Branstad appointed Lavorato to the Supreme Court in 1986. Lavorato, 78, of Des Moines, was chief justice from 2000 to 2006.
Hedlund chose not to be interviewed for the investigation. His attorney, Tom Duff, said Wednesday he was not surprised by Lavorato’s conclusion that Branstad was not involved in the firing.
“The governor’s investigation into his own conduct was nothing more than a political stunt to subvert the legal process and exonerate himself without facing a judge, jury or the due process of law,” Duff wrote in a prepared statement. “We will continue building our strong case through the appropriate legal process and ultimately a jury will whether Hedlund was wrongfully terminated.”
Duff and Hedlund had opposed Lavorato’s use of a 500-page DPS report they called one sided.
Lavorato interviewed Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who also was in the speeding SUV April 26, and all other staff in the governor’s office. K. Brian London, public safety commissioner, and other public safety officials who recommended Hedlund’s firing also talked with Lavorato, the report states.
Hedlund, 55, was fired July 17 for insubordination, using a disrespectful tone to his supervisor and driving a state car on his day off, according to a three-page termination letter signed by DCI Director Chari Paulson.
He was put on paid leave May 1, two days after writing an email to his supervisors complaining state troopers did not pull over the speeding SUV. Hedlund spotted the vehicle April 26 driving about 90 mph on Highway 20, which has a 65-mph speed limit, and reported it to dispatch.
A trooper who pursued the SUV did not initially know it carried the governor because the plates were not listed in computerized files He aborted the pursuit when he realized the car was driven by a fellow trooper. Steve Lawrence, the trooper driving the SUV, was cited for speeding last month after a DPS review of the incident. Lawrence paid the $181 ticket.