Government

Gov. Terry Branstad discriminated against gay state official, jury finds

State 'disappointed' in ruling that awards former employee $1.5 million

Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, testifies June 14 in a Polk County courtroom. He is named in a lawsuit brought by a former state employee who asserts that Branstad wanted him out because the employee is gay. (Pool photo from the Des Moines Register)
Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, testifies June 14 in a Polk County courtroom. He is named in a lawsuit brought by a former state employee who asserts that Branstad wanted him out because the employee is gay. (Pool photo from the Des Moines Register)

Then-Gov. Terry Branstad discriminated against a state employee — asking for his resignation and then cutting his pay — based on the employee’s sexual orientation, a jury decided Monday, according to the man’s attorney.

The jury awarded former Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Christopher Godfrey $1.5 million, said attorney Roxanne Conlin.

Godfrey sued Branstad in 2012 — while Branstad was governor — but the case took eight years of legal twists including two challenges to the Iowa Supreme Court before heading to trial about six weeks ago.

“After eight long years and two trips to the Iowa Supreme Court, we now know Chris Godfrey was the victim of sexual orientation discrimination and retaliation,” Conlin said Monday.

Godfrey said in an interview he has not decided his next steps yet, but is “excited that justice finally came in.” He described his relief as “unimaginable.”

“It’s a huge weight (gone) for me and my family and for other gay people in Iowa,” he said. “This is a day we can all be very, very happy about.”

A spokesman for current Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office did not rule out the possibility of an appeal.

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“We are disappointed in the verdict and are consulting with our attorneys,” spokesman Pat Garrett said.

Godfrey filed the wrongful termination and discrimination suit in 2012 after Branstad asked for his resignation and sliced his $112,068 salary by $36,000.

Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, returned to Iowa last month to testify.

“I was raised by a Jewish mother who was very sensitive to discrimination, and she taught me to treat everyone with respect and dignity,” Branstad said then on the stand. “ … That’s the way I’ve always operated. I’ve never worried about what somebody’s sexual orientation was.”

But he also acknowledged under questioning that same-sex marriage was a political flashpoint in 2010 — when he was running for election — though he said he “didn’t know” the Iowa GOP’s platform called for repealing a state law that provided legal protections for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual Iowans.

Branstad testified he had received complaints from the business community about the way Godfrey handled workers’ compensation matters. He said he didn’t know Godfrey was gay.

If the $1.5 million award stands, it will add to the mounting total of millions the state has paid out in the recent past to settle gender, sexual harassment and sexual orientation discrimination complaints from state employees.

In February, The Gazette found the tally of recent legal settlements involving alleged sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation by state employees was over $14 million.

In one of the costliest, the University of Iowa paid $6.5 million to former athletic administrator Jane Meyer and field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum to settle their claims of gender and sexual orientation discrimination.

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Since that February tally, the state has agreed to other payouts for various forms of discrimination against state employees, including a $27,000 payment to a former Iowa State University employee denied transgender care through her university health care plan.

l Comments: john.steppe@thegazette.com

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