Auditor, treasurer reject payments in Branstad case
By DAVID PITT
DES MOINES — A group of top state officials on Monday approved payments of nearly $400,000 to a Des Moines law firm to continue a lawsuit in which a jury concluded former Gov. Terry Branstad discriminated against an ex-state official because the official is gay.
Two Democratic members of the Iowa Executive Council, the five-member panel responsible for authorizing state litigation expenses, refused to approve legal bills presented Monday.
Iowa Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald and Auditor Rob Sand voted no. But the three Republicans, Gov. Kim Reynolds, Secretary of State Paul Pate and Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, voted in favor, allowing the bills to be paid.
Four bills submitted by the Nyemaster Goode law firm reached $388,594, bringing the total cost for the case to more than $8 million.
A jury awarded former Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey $1.5 million in July, finding he was the victim of discrimination and retaliation when Branstad tried to force him to quit in 2011 and then cut his pay.
Jurors found against Branstad, one of his staff members and the state. Branstad resigned as governor in 2017 to become the U.S. ambassador to China.
Reynolds decided last month to appeal the case to the Iowa Supreme Court. If Godfrey prevails in appeals, taxpayers must pay the total court costs.
The governor said the bills approved Monday are still part of the main case including trial expenses and appeal costs that haven’t yet begun to be billed.
She reiterated her reason for continuing to have taxpayers pay for the case and for appealing.
“As I said before, I think it would be irresponsible for me not to as it’s a relatively small cost moving forward and we believe that we have a good case,” Reynolds said.
Sand, a former state prosecutor who became auditor in January, said the bills presented Monday included some main case costs and appeals costs. He has said since September that he wouldn’t force taxpayers to pay appeals costs.
Sand said it’s unlikely the courts, on appeal, would dismiss the case.
“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,” he said.
Reynolds has said she believes the Iowa Supreme Court could reverse the verdict and end the case, eliminating the verdict and Godfrey’s attorney costs.
Sand called that a bad bet.
Attorneys for Branstad and the state have argued that the verdicts weren’t supported by substantial evidence and conflict with the law. Branstad testified that at the time he asked Godfrey to resign, he didn’t know that Godfrey was gay. His attorneys claim there was insufficient evidence to show that Branstad knew.
Those appeals and others were rejected on Nov. 13 by Judge Brad McCall, who also presided over the trial. He wrote the jury clearly rejected Branstad’s contention that he didn’t know Godfrey was gay.
McCall said the jury was presented with substantial evidence from which to conclude that Branstad’s action against Godfrey was due to Godfrey’s sexual orientation.