Government

State has paid nearly $2.8 million in defense costs covering Branstad discrimination lawsuit

Gov. Reynolds says latest installment should cover cost of defense in original case, though appeal is next step

Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, testifies June 14, 2019, in a Polk County courtroom.
Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, testifies June 14, 2019, in a Polk County courtroom. A jury eventually ruled in favor of Chris Godfrey, a former Iowa Workers’ Compensation commissioner who said Branstad fired him for being gay. The state in November decided to appeal the verdict, and the costs associated with the lawsuit are continuing to mount. (Pool photo from the Des Moines Register)

DES MOINES — Legal costs associated with a discrimination case brought against former Gov. Terry Branstad and his administration continue to mount — with the latest installment of $388,596 approved Monday by the Iowa Executive Council, bringing the total state-paid amount defending against the claim filed by ex-Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey to nearly $2.8 million.

Overall, the state’s potential liability has topped $8 million after a Polk County jury awarded Godfrey $1.5 million last July. Jurors found the former governor and a staffer had discriminated against Godfrey in 2011 because he’s gay and retaliated against him by cutting his pay after he refused to quit. The team of attorneys who represented Godfrey — led by Des Moines attorney Roxanne Conlin — have indicated their fees and costs associated with a case that took seven years to get to trial are in the $4 million range. Iowa taxpayers will pay the judgment and attorney costs once a judge approves the totals when all legal proceedings are concluded.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, whose administration has appealed the jury’s finding to the Iowa Supreme Court, told reporters “I think it would be irresponsible not to” after she and two other Republicans on the council voted to approve the latest attorney costs they received through October. She said that should cover the costs associated with the original case. She has indicated her legal advisers are confident the appeal will be successful, and she has disputed the suggestion the best her team can hope for is a retrial.

“That’s a relatively small cost moving forward,” the governor said Monday. “We believe that we have a good case and so that’s why I made the decision to appeal.”

Branstad stepped down as governor in 2017 to become the U.S. ambassador to China and was succeeded by Reynolds — his lieutenant since January 2011.

The two Democrats who are Executive Council members — Auditor Rob Sand and Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald voted against Monday’s action.

Neither made comments on the agenda item, but Sand later told reporters he thought the state’s chances of prevailing upon appeal are “bad.”

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“The problem with most of the appellate issues (is) that the ‘reward’ you get for prevailing is a new trial, which is just as expensive,” Sand noted. “It’s a very low likelihood (the court will dismiss the case outright) and hoping for that to answer is kind of betting your house. You are putting it on the line for taxpayers because the odds of that happening versus the odds of getting a new trial and having to pay those expenses all over again are pretty bad. It’s betting the house on a bad bet.”

In announcing plans to appeal last month, Reynolds issued a statement through her spokesman indicating her legal team believes “the state’s arguments are strong and will succeed on appeal” and that “additional legal costs will be minimal and winning the appeal will save taxpayers millions of dollars.”

Attorneys for Branstad have blasted the proceedings as a “show trial” that echoed back to 1982 when he defeated Conlin in the gubernatorial election. They contend the verdicts weren’t supported by substantial evidence and conflict with the law, but Sand said statements included in the appellate briefs “are just beyond the pale in terms of language” about the case.

“It’s still a poor decision for taxpayers, and I say that as someone who has spent a lot of time in courtrooms and I’m still disappointed — frankly disgusted — by some of the language, the divisive language that has been used in the briefs,” said Sand, a former assistant Iowa attorney general before he was elected to serve a four-year term as state auditor in 2018.

“To read the things that were written in those briefs, it’s just entirely inappropriate to have taxpayers paying for that,” he added. “If they’re really interested in protecting taxpayers, why aren’t we doing this on a contingency basis? The defense attorney should only be getting paid if there’s actually a net reduction in what taxpayers owe from this point forward — meaning if they get paid, it ought to be because taxpayers overall are paying less or up to the same amount. If they think the case is so good, they ought to be doing it that way.”

Branstad insisted during his trial testimony that he did not know Godfrey’s sexual orientation and asked him to resign due to concerns he had heard about the former commissioner as well as his desire to establish his own team after winning the 2010 election. Godfrey, who still had time remaining on his six-year term, refused to step down. So Branstad cut his salary from $112,070 to $73,250 — prompting Godfrey to bring his discrimination lawsuit.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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