Governor commissions review of agent’s firing
IOWA CITY — Gov. Terry Branstad appointed a former Iowa Supreme Court justice on Friday to independently review the firing of a criminal investigator who was removed from duty days after complaining about the governor’s speeding vehicle.
Seeking to quell a political furor, Branstad asked former Chief Justice Louis Lavarato to examine the firing of Larry Hedlund, a special agent in charge with the Division of Criminal Investigation, and issue a report. The governor said he ordered the review of Hedlund’s accusations that his firing was retaliation for filing an internal complaint about the speeding incident.
“Iowans may continue to have questions and doubts about the allegations made until they know the whole story. I want Iowans to know the truth,” Branstad said in a statement. “Former Chief Justice Louis A. Lavarato is a respected and impartial statesman, and will offer a fresh, independent review of this matter.”
Branstad maintained that any retaliation claims against him were unfounded. Last week, he defended Hedlund’s firing during a news conference and heatedly denounced “false accusations” of retaliation. The governor had called the Iowa Department of Public Safety’s firing of Hedlund “fair and just” and said the disciplinary investigation was independently conducted.
But critics have used the case to raise questions about the governor’s management and special treatment for government officials. The incident also led to revelations that 3,218 license plates for government vehicles in Iowa, including the governor’s SUV, aren’t on record with law enforcement and therefore avoid traffic camera tickets. Branstad also has ordered a review of that practice.
Troy Price, executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party, said the timing of Hedlund’s firing was suspect and questions about it could have been avoided had the matter been handled differently.
“This is just more waste, more taxpayer dollars being spent to investigate something that doesn’t need to be investigated,” he said. “The governor just needs to take responsibility and move on, but he refuses to do that.”
Hedlund reported that the governor’s SUV zipped past him on a highway April 26 doing “a hard 90” and called a dispatcher to send a trooper to investigate. The Chevy Tahoe was clocked traveling 84 mph in a 65-mph zone. After racing to catch up, trooper Matt Eimers ended the pursuit after seeing the vehicle was being driven by fellow trooper Steve Lawrence, who was transporting Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Hedlund filed a complaint April 29, warning Public Safety Commissioner Brian London that the pursuit endangered safety and that the governor should not be considered above the law. DCI Director Chari Paulson responded by asking Hedlund why he was driving his state vehicle on a vacation day, and within days the 25-year veteran was placed on administrative leave.
Hedlund, who said he had worked part of that day, had no prior discipline and was known as a sharp investigator, winning a 2008 award for assisting crime victims.
DPS fired Hedlund last week for what it called unbecoming conduct, which included sending “negative and disrespectful” emails in which he criticized Paulson’s policies and leadership to subordinates. Hedlund, 55, has pledged to file a wrongful termination lawsuit.
The department has also launched a review of the actions of Eimers and Lawrence after audio and video of the incident was released this month. Branstad has said that review should be completed this week.
In his letter appointing Lavarato, Branstad said he’s asked state employees to cooperate with the investigation, and that Lavarato has “complete autonomy” to conduct interviews and request documents as needed. Branstad appointed Lavarato to the high court in 1986, and he served for 20 years, retiring in 2006. Lavarato was chief justice for the final six years.
Hedlund and his attorney, Tom Duff, have not accused Branstad of personally retaliating against him. They allege that Hedlund’s DPS superiors did so. They also say they are not aware of any personnel complaints being filed against Hedlund before the speeding incident, as Branstad claims.
Hedlund said Friday it was too soon for him to respond to the development, and that he would need to consult with Duff. The two are reviewing a 500-page disciplinary report, considered confidential under Iowa law.
Branstad last week called on the two to release the report, saying it would show Hedlund was fired for the good of the department — but they hadn’t received the document by then.