IOWA CITY (AP) — Gov. Terry Branstad appointed a former Iowa Supreme Court justice on Friday to independently review the firing of a criminal investigator who was removed from duty days after complaining about the governor's speeding vehicle.
Branstad asked former Chief Justice Louis Lavorato to examine the firing of Larry Hedlund, a special agent in charge with the Division of Criminal Investigation, and to report his findings publicly. The governor said he decided to pursue a review in an attempt to disprove Hedlund's accusation that his firing was in retaliation for complaining about the April 26 speeding incident.
“Iowans may continue to have questions and doubts about the allegations made until they know the whole story. I want Iowans to know the truth,” Branstad said in a statement. He said Lavorato is a respected statesman who “will offer a fresh, independent review of this matter.”
But the review quickly hit a potential roadblock. Hedlund's attorney Tom Duff said that he did not believe the state could legally share a 500-page disciplinary report by the Department of Public Safety's Professional Standards Bureau with Lavorato since it contains confidential personnel information.
Duff said that he was considering seeking a court injunction next week to block the disclosure, saying the report was a “ginned up, manufactured, one-sided” document that falsely paints Hedlund as a security problem.
“One of the witnesses that they interviewed said, 'It kind of seems like a witch hunt.' I couldn't agree more,” Duff said.
Also Friday, the Department of Public Safety said its investigation into the speeding incident led to a ticket and “appropriate discipline” against Steve Lawrence, the trooper who was driving Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds in the governor's sport utility vehicle. Lawrence was cited for going 84 mph in a 65-mph zone on U.S. Highway 20 in Hamilton County and paid a $181.50 fine.
The trooper who declined to pull Lawrence over, Matthew Eimers, will not be disciplined because he followed policies in responding to the call for assistance and was within his discretion not to stop the vehicle, Department of Public Safety spokesman Lt. Rob Hansen said.
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor was satisfied with the outcome. “The governor was not driving and will not be paying the ticket,” he added.
Hedlund had reported that the governor's SUV zipped past him doing “a hard 90,” and he called a dispatcher to send a trooper to investigate. The Chevy Tahoe was clocked at 84 mph. After racing to catch up, Eimers ended the pursuit after seeing the vehicle was “Car 1,” the governor's.
Hedlund filed a complaint April 29, warning Public Safety Commissioner Brian London that the three-vehicle pursuit through traffic endangered safety and that the governor should not be above the law.
Chari Paulson, director of the Division of Criminal Investigation, responded by asking Hedlund why he was driving his state vehicle on a vacation day, and the 25-year veteran was soon placed on administrative leave. Hedlund, who said he had worked part of that day, had no prior discipline.
The Department of Public Safety fired Hedlund last week for what it called unbecoming conduct, which included sending “negative and disrespectful” emails in which he criticized Paulson's policies and leadership to subordinates. Hedlund, 55, has pledged to file a wrongful termination lawsuit.
His attorney, Duff, said Friday that he also would add a defamation claim over Branstad's remarks last week at a press conference, when he called Hedlund's firing a “fair and just” decision made by the Department of Public Safety to remove a problem employee.
Branstad asked state employees to cooperate with Lavorato's investigation, promising him “complete autonomy” to conduct interviews and request documents. Branstad appointed Lavorato in 1986. He served 20 years, including the final six as chief justice, before retiring.
Branstad said that Lavorato would be required to sign a nondisclosure agreement to review personnel materials, but Duff said he did not believe that was allowed. The report's cover page, released by Duff, warns that unauthorized disclosure could result in “civil or criminal sanctions.”
The case has dogged Branstad all month. It led to revelations that 3,218 license plates for government vehicles in Iowa including the governor's SUV, aren't on record with law enforcement and therefore may avoid traffic camera tickets. Branstad also has ordered a review of that practice.
Troy Price, executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party, said the review prolongs a story that's raising doubt with voters about whether Branstad believes he's above the law after five terms as governor.
“This is just more waste, more taxpayer dollars being spent to investigate something that doesn't need to be investigated,” he said. “The governor just needs to take responsibility and move on, but he refuses to do that.”
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