Former Public Safety director: 'Iowa has destroyed me'
Brian London reflects on rocky 11-month appointment as DPS head
Brian London believed he had a mandate to shake up the Iowa Department of Public Safety, but his management style and inability to win over Iowans ultimately torpedoed his career.
London, who resigned as commissioner last Tuesday amid ongoing controversy and complaints about poor morale, said he does not think he will ever work again.
“Iowa has destroyed me,” said London, 60, while sitting at his dining room table in West Des Moines. “People think I’m a racist, bigot, tyrant horrible manager. What hurts me the most is that Iowa has never given me a chance.”
London sat down with The Gazette on Friday for a wide-ranging interview about his 11 months leading the state’s 900-employee public safety department. He praised several agencies, including the Division of Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Bureau, for being leaders in their specialties. He spoke well of his replacement, former state Sen. Larry Noble, a 30-year law enforcement officer Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad tapped last week.
But London also described an old boy’s club that sought to undermine him even before his confirmation by the Iowa Senate.
Before coming to Iowa, London served with the Secret Service, CIA and INTERPOL. His most recent government job before coming to Iowa was deputy chief financial officer for the Florida Department of Financial Services, where he served from 2008 to 2010. After that, he was a private security consultant in Tallahassee.
Branstad hired London last October at a salary of $128,890 — the maximum salary allowed for his position — but Branstad’s former chief of staff authorized a $16,000 recruitment bonus to raise London’s first-year pay to $145,000.
“When I come into the state, all of a sudden I’m being barraged with this stuff, ‘you’re getting bonuses, you’re an outsider’,” London said.
What people don’t know, London said Friday, is that he refused state medical benefits, valued at about $12,000, to make up for the bonus.
He said he sought input from 40-some senior managers, most of whom he called by phone before moving to Iowa.
“I asked them to give me memos with ideas and suggestions of things to be changed in the department,” London said. “Most of them did. All of them said the current structure wasn’t working.”
Reorganization leaked to staff
London developed a reorganization plan with the help of Director of Administrative Services Dave Heuton and Executive Director Steve Ponsetto. The changes involved replacing the leader of the Iowa State Patrol and splitting up leadership duties of the DCI.
“I told him it was confidential,” London said of Heuton. “Unfortunately, Dave decided to talk with all of the people in the department.”
The leak caused London to reorganize sooner than he wanted, within weeks of taking over at DPS. London decided to fire Heuton, who had been with DPS for 17 years.
Heuton, who now works for the Legislative Services Agency, admitted he shouldn’t have told colleagues about the reorganization, but when they asked him direct questions about their jobs, Heuton felt they deserved answers.
“I don’t hold hard feelings toward Mr. London about it,” Heuton said. He said he thinks London might have succeeded in executing the plan if he had understood DPS better. “He didn’t know the people. He didn’t know the dynamics.”
Fleet changes get mixed reviews
London said he was trying to understand. He went on ride-alongs with state troopers and asked former DPS employees to lunch. He worked long hours and forged connections with leaders from other agencies, such as the Iowa Department of Transportation.
These conversations led to improvements for state patrol vehicles, including new printers and push bumpers, used to push disabled cars off the roadway after an accident. But London angered some troopers when he ordered that most of the 75 unmarked vehicles be marked with decals, light bars and a common color.
“This, they hated,” London said.
Some troopers regarded the unmarked cars as rewards that allowed them occasional anonymity, he said. But London thinks marked cars serve as a deterrent to speeding and other infractions. He doesn’t know how much the change cost, but estimated a couple hundred dollars per car.
London starts new investigative units
London called the Iowa DCI a great organization, staffed by “superstars” who help local law enforcement agencies across the state solve complex crimes.
“But we were essentially waiting for the phone to ring,” London said.
He encouraged investigators to use their downtime to search out financial crimes, computer crimes and human trafficking cases. London started the Iowa Financial Investigation Team with one agent each from DCI and Division of Narcotics Enforcement, along with an assistant attorney general.
London named in wrongful termination suit
The biggest controversy hit in June, when the media learned long-time DCI agent Larry Hedlund had been put on leave days after complaining state troopers did not pull over a speeding SUV carrying Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds on April 26 on U.S. Highway 20.
Hedlund, 55, of Fort Dodge, 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 termination letter signed by DCI Director Chari Paulson.
Branstad has said Hedlund’s termination was not linked to the agent’s complaint about the speeding incident.
Hedlund sued the state for wrongful termination last month. He alleges he was fired for speaking his mind about problems in the department and for complaining about a speeding incident.
The suit, which includes London among several named defendants, said the department head “used implied and overt threats of demotion and termination to get his way, had not maintained a work environment of respect and positive conflict resolution and had micromanaged the work of field agents all causing a devastating drop in morale.”
London, who only met Hedlund once, stands by the decision to fire the agent. Although, “we knew it would be a nuclear war doing this.”
Quiet complaining turned into calls to state lawmakers, with DPS employees criticizing London’s leadership style and leaking unflattering information about their boss.
The Associated Press reported last month that London made a comment about Filipinos being hard to polygraph, causing the Philippine ambassador to the United States to seek an apology. London said Friday that the comment was taken out of context. What he meant was that cultural and language barriers can complicate polygraph testing.
As for London’s leadership style, he admitted he can be brutally honest and would not accept employees telling him “no” at every turn. He wanted DPS staff to work harder to find ways to accomplish their initiatives.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal said he had a good working relationship with London.
“I met with him several times,” said Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs. “He was always fair, decent, open and honest with me.”
London felt confident enough about his job to buy a $428,000 house on Aug. 20. He said he called Branstad’s former chief of staff, Jeff Boeyink, to ask whether this was a wise move. Boeyink gave him no reason to think he shouldn’t buy the house, London said.
Exactly two weeks later, on Sept. 3, Branstad called London for a surprise meeting and accepted London’s resignation.
“I spent my last five minutes with the governor telling him not to lose some of the initiatives I started,” he said. “These are very important things for Iowa.”Noble, who Branstad chose to restore “stability and predictability” at DPS, said Friday he didn’t think there was much fixing to do. Noble’s first priorities are figuring out the department’s fiscal 2015 budget and offering an academy to recruit new officers.