Lawsuit over agent’s firing exposes Iowa police agency mess
IOWA CITY (AP) — An Iowa investigator fired after complaining about frequent speeding by the governor’s state vehicle claims in a lawsuit that he faced harsher discipline than other employees because he embarrassed then-Gov. Terry Branstad.
Division of Criminal Investigation agent Larry Hedlund was removed from duty in 2013, days after he reported that an SUV transporting Branstad and now-Gov. Kim Reynolds passed him traveling a “hard 90” on the highway.
Hedlund, who is now a Fort Dodge police detective, complained to superiors that the practice was reckless and should not be excused. He was soon fired for what his bosses called unrelated insubordination that they say began weeks earlier.
In newly-filed documents in a wrongful termination lawsuit, Hedlund’s lawyers argue that other Iowa Department of Public Safety supervisors committed more serious infractions but suffered lesser consequences because they hadn’t blown the whistle on Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China. The trial in April looms at an awkward time for Reynolds, who’s running for re-election.
Hedlund’s attorneys point to several misconduct cases, which the state has acknowledged. An Iowa State Patrol supervisor was demoted a rank after improperly intervening in a minor car accident involving his daughter’s boyfriend and filing a report that “falsely and unjustly” blamed the other driver. The boyfriend gave the report to his insurer for a claim.
Another supervisor was demoted but not fired after pointing his service weapon at his head in a patrol office in front of co-workers and a three-year-old boy. The employee called the gesture a joke, which he made after a lengthy phone call from an angry citizen.
A third supervisor was suspended but not demoted after being caught having a workplace affair with a direct subordinate, and two others weren’t formally disciplined for insubordination for shouting expletives at higher-ranking officers.
Robert Verry, a retired police chief hired to review the case by Hedlund’s lawyers, wrote that the investigator’s firing “appears to have everything to do with his ethical drive to not remain silent after witnessing the governor’s vehicle travel at a high rate of speed.”
The Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which is defending the state, asked a judge to dismiss the case. State lawyers say that Hedlund’s termination resulted from disrespectful behavior over several weeks and that other supervisors who kept their jobs despite misconduct were not “similarly situated” to Hedlund.
“His attempt to use employment decisions made by completely different supervisors within the department, regarding completely different conduct, under different commissioners, does nothing to aid his argument,” they wrote.
Three other officers were fired by the department in 2013 but each won reinstatement after appeals. State lawyers note that Hedlund retired before his termination took effect instead of appealing. They argue he’s not a whistleblower because his complaint was styled as being against himself for failing to insist the governor’s vehicle be stopped.
Steve Lawrence, the trooper driving during the 2013 incident, testified in a deposition that he routinely sped to events, saying he took “great pride” in keeping the governor on schedule.
“I’m a very good driver. I’m a trained driver. I can evaluate when it’s safe,” he testified.
Lawrence wasn’t stopped when a fellow trooper recognized who was in the vehicle, and he testified he’d been pulled over and let go once before while driving Branstad. Lawrence was later ticketed for driving 84 in a 65-mph zone after Hedlund’s complaint prompted an investigation. Lawrence testified that he started following the speed limit after that ticket.
The incidents occurred during the 11-month tenure of Commissioner Brian London, a Branstad appointee who ordered Hedlund’s removal from duty and firing. Testimony shows that employees objected to what they called London’s bizarre antics, which included asking Hedlund and other investigators to hire psychics to solve crimes, berating subordinates, and making remarks seen as insensitive about Filipinos. Branstad fired London after the uproar over Hedlund’s firing.
Hedlund argues that his 25-year state career was destroyed in part because he opposed London’s management. As the agent in charge of northern Iowa investigations, Hedlund was stressed from a crime wave that included the kidnapping and murder of young cousins and clashed with two newly-installed criminal division leaders.
Tensions escalated when the department proposed eliminating one of four state crime zones, which many agents opposed. His superiors argue that Hedlund crossed the line into insubordination in emails and a conference call, but other agents on the call disputed that claim.
Days after Hedlund’s complaint, London ordered officials to go unannounced to Hedlund’s home to put him on administrative leave and retrieve his service weapons. Department officials said they were concerned about Hedlund’s mental state and ordered him to undergo a fitness-for-duty exam, which he passed.
London testified he later approved Hedlund’s firing but knew it would create “a big mess.”