Review: Branstad had no role in agent’s firing

IOWA CITY (AP) – Gov. Terry Branstad and his office had no role in firing a criminal investigator who faced disciplinary action days after filing a complaint about the governor’s speeding SUV, a review commissioned by Branstad concluded Wednesday.

Branstad took a hands-off approach toward the investigation and July termination of former Division of Criminal Investigation special agent Larry Hedlund, and the governor’s position “was painstakingly followed by his staff,” former Iowa Chief Justice Louis Lavorato wrote in a report.

Lavorato said he found no direct evidence that Hedlund’s superiors in the Department of Public Safety retaliated against him for his role in an April 26 pursuit of the governor’s speeding vehicle or for his complaint days later that the incident jeopardized public safety. But he said he reached no conclusion on whether there was retaliation or whether Hedlund’s firing was justified. He said most retaliation cases are proven through circumstantial evidence, and a jury will ultimately have to decide Hedlund’s claims.

Branstad had appointed Lavorato to look into Hedlund’s firing amid political controversy, saying he was being falsely accused of retaliation.

“This report demonstrates that my office in no way interfered with, nor directed, the investigation into Larry Hedlund,” Branstad said in a statement, thanking Lavorato for what he called a thorough and independent investigation.

Lavorato said he interviewed every member of Branstad’s office, Hedlund’s former superiors at DPS and DCI, and internal affairs investigators who spent two months looking into Hedlund’s conduct. Hedlund declined to be interviewed, with his attorney arguing the legal claims should be decided in a court of law, not a politically expedient review.

Hedlund filed a lawsuit earlier this month claiming he was wrongly terminated for blowing the whistle on what he called the governor’s practice of speeding and other misconduct in state government. His lawsuit names DPS Commissioner Brian London, DCI Director Chari Paulson and Assistant DCI Director Gerard Meyers. His attorney says he may add Branstad to the lawsuit with a defamation claim for publicly defending Hedlund’s firing as being for the “morale and safety and the well-being” of the department, a claim he calls false.

Hedlund reported that a black SUV zipped past him traveling “a hard 90” mph in a 65-mph zone on Highway 20 in northern Iowa on April 26. Hedlund began pursuing the vehicle, which was eventually clocked at 84 mph. A trooper raced to catch up, but did not pull the SUV over after seeing it was another trooper driving Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds in “Car 1,” the governor’s state-assigned Chevy Tahoe.

On his next work day, April 29, Hedlund wrote an email to his superiors saying he should have insisted the governor’s vehicle be stopped. He said he would contact county attorneys and the Attorney General’s office to determine how to proceed, saying the governor should not be considered above the law.

Paulson responded by asking Hedlund why he was driving a state vehicle, when he was scheduled to be on vacation. Only after audio and video of the incident became public two months later, the department launched a review that led to disciplinary action and a $181 speeding ticket against trooper Steven Lawrence, who was driving Branstad.

Two days after his complaint, Hedlund was placed on administrative leave and was notified that he was accused of using his state vehicle on a vacation day, not receiving approval for a sick day on April 30 and being disrespectful and insubordinate during an April 18 conference call. Lavorato said the complaint about Hedlund’s disrespectful behavior was filed hours before the speeding incident, which rules out retaliation, but that the balance of other charges were filed days afterward.

“The temporal proximity here is certainly crucial to Mr. Hedlund’s retaliation charge and will probably be a factor in this case,” Lavorato wrote.

Lavorato said Hedlund’s bosses will rely on the misconduct allegations to justify his firing. He said he asked them why they “acted so quickly after the speeding incident” and why they did not consider lesser discipline for Hedlund, a 25-year veteran with no prior disciplinary history.

Lavorato said their responses are not yet public record, but will play a role in “a jury’s determination whether there actually was retaliation in connection with the speeding incident.”

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.