Government

Judge rejects Branstad's move to toss jury verdict

Then-Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad speaks Jan. 14, 2014, at the State Capitol. The former governor appealed a jury verdict that awarded a former state employee $1.5 million after he claimed Branstad tried to force him to quit because he was gay. A judge rejected Branstad’s appeal this week. (The Gazette)
Then-Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad speaks Jan. 14, 2014, at the State Capitol. The former governor appealed a jury verdict that awarded a former state employee $1.5 million after he claimed Branstad tried to force him to quit because he was gay. A judge rejected Branstad’s appeal this week. (The Gazette)

DES MOINES — A judge rejected a request by former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s lawyers to set aside a jury verdict that concluded Branstad had discriminated against a former state official because the official is gay.

In a ruling filed Tuesday, District Court Judge Brad McCall rejected dozens of Branstad’s lawyers’ arguments, including challenges to legal rulings during trial and jury instructions.

The attorneys asked McCall to set aside the July 15 jury verdict of $1.5 million awarded to Chris Godfrey, the former Iowa Workers’ Compensation commissioner.

Jurors concluded that Godfrey was the victim of discrimination and retaliation when Branstad tried to force him to quit in 2011 and then cut his pay.

Frank Harty, Branstad’s attorney, said in a motion filed July 31 that McCall should either dismiss the lawsuit or order a new trial.

Harty contended that the verdicts weren’t supported by substantial evidence and were conflicted with the law, and he called the case “a political circus with the court serving as ringmaster.”

McCall rejected Harty’s arguments, saying substantial evidence was presented during the trial that supported the jury’s conclusions.

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Branstad testified that at the time he asked Godfrey to resign, he didn’t know Godfrey was gay.

Harty claimed there was insufficient evidence to show Branstad knew, but McCall disagreed.

“Having had the opportunity to evaluate Branstad’s denials as he testified, the jury verdict clearly reflects the jury’s rejection of Branstad’s denials,” McCall wrote, adding the jury was presented with substantial evidence from which to conclude Branstad’s action was due to Godfrey’s sexual orientation.

The legal challenges continue to drag out the case for which Iowa taxpayers will be charged if the verdict withstands appeals. The total cost stands at about $8 million.

Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, chose to hire private attorneys to represent him instead of allowing the Iowa Attorney General’s Office to do it.

The private attorney fees paid by the state total $2.5 million. An additional $377,905 has been submitted to the state and has not yet been approved. The fees filed by Godfrey’s attorneys were recently amended to $3.98 million to include additional post-trial work.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Branstad’s attorneys would appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court. Harty did not immediately respond to a message Wednesday.

A spokesman for Gov. Kim Reynolds said she would consult with attorneys before deciding whether to appeal.

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

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State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald has opposed taxpayers continuing to pay for Branstad’s defense.

“It’s gotten ridiculous for the taxpayers to pay this,” Fitzgerald said Wednesday. “It’s time to say, OK they’ve won, pay the bill and bury this thing before we run up another $8 (million) to $10 million in cost.”

State Auditor Rob Sand, a former assistant attorney general, said Wednesday he also will not support paying further appeal costs.

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

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