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Iowa appeals former Gov. Branstad verdict that concluded there was discrimination and retaliation against a gay state commissioner

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)

DES MOINES — The state announced Friday it’s appealing to the Iowa Supreme Court a jury’s finding that a former state official be awarded $1.5 million because then-Gov. Terry Branstad discriminated against him for being gay.

A jury in July found for former Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey, who jurors determined was the victim of discrimination and retaliation when Branstad tried to force him to quit in 2011 and then cut his pay.

Now the U.S. ambassador to China, Branstad flew in and testified at the trial, saying he was raised to treat everyone “with dignity” and didn’t know Godfrey was gay.

Nonetheless, jurors found against Branstad, one of his staff members and the state of Iowa.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, who formerly was Branstad’s lieutenant, made the decision to appeal the verdict after consulting with attorneys.

“We believe the state’s arguments are strong and will succeed on appeal,” said governor’s spokesman Pat Garrett. “Additional legal costs will be minimal and winning the appeal will save taxpayers millions of dollars.”

In September, after the verdict, the Iowa Executive Council approved a bill for over $488,000 for the Des Moines law firm representing the state, Branstad and his former legal counsel Brenna Findley. That brought the cost to taxpayers to defend them to more than $2.4 million.

That figure does not include the cost of the verdict, the cost of the appeal or the cost of covering legal expenses for Godfrey if he prevails.

Two Democratic members of the Iowa Executive Council, the five-member panel responsible for authorizing litigation expenses, said they will not vote to approve bills for an appeal.

“I am still waiting for anyone to explain to me why they believe this is in the best interest of taxpayers,” State Auditor Rob Sand said Friday.

Even if he and State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald vote to stop paying for the case, the three Republicans on the council hold the majority and could continue to pay. They are Reynolds, Secretary of State Paul Pate and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig.

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 testified he had received complaints from the business community about the way Godfrey handled workers’ compensation matters. Though he said he didn’t know Godfrey was gay, the former governor acknowledged under questioning that same-sex marriage was a political flashpoint in 2010 when he was running for election against incumbent Chet Culver.

Attorneys for Branstad and the state have argued the verdicts weren’t supported by substantial evidence and conflict with the law.

Those arguments were rejected last week by Judge Brad McCall, who presided over the trial. He wrote that the jury clearly rejected Branstad’s contention.

McCall said the jury was presented with substantial evidence from which to conclude that Branstad’s action against Godfrey was due to Godfrey’s sexual orientation.

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Godfrey’s attorney, Roxanne Conlin, said appealing is a “deeply dumb” decision because the best outcome for the state is that the Iowa Supreme Court orders a new trial.

“Even if they win everything in the Supreme Court, the result is not that it all goes away. The result is that it goes back to the district court for retrial,” she said. “The court cannot undo the Iowa civil rights law. That law exists, and that law protects Chris Godfrey and every other gay person from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation. They cannot undo that.”

Rod Boshart of The Gazette’s Des Moines Bureau contributed.

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