Evans: Taxpayers Have Been Taken For An Expensive Ride

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Lyle Muller/IowaWatch

Most Iowans are pretty frugal. They don’t waste their money. They especially don’t like it when they believe government officials fritter away our tax money.

That’s why I think many people in Iowa are not familiar with the case of Chris Godfrey.

Otherwise, if they were truly informed about what has occurred in the past six and a half years, I am convinced they would be steamed about the decision and actions of Terry Branstad and Kim Reynolds when they were governor and lieutenant governor.

Randy Evans

STRAY THOUGHTS

Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He is a former editorial page editor and assistant managing editor of The Des Moines Register. Opinions are his own.

Visit the Iowa Freedom of Information Council website at: http://ifoic.org/

Follow along and see if you think I am off base. See if you agree that this is one hugely expensive lapse of sound judgment by Branstad and Reynolds.

In 2006, then-Gov. Tom Vilsack appointed Chris Godfrey, a lawyer from Sioux City, to fill the remaining three years of a six-year term as Iowa’s workers compensation commissioner. That spring, a bipartisan majority in the Iowa Senate confirmed the appointment.

In 2009, then-Gov. Chet Culver reappointed Godfrey to a new six-year term expiring in April 2015. Again, Godfrey was confirmed by a huge majority of Senate Democrats and Republicans.

Unlike most upper-level officials in the Executive Branch of state government, the workers compensation commissioner does not serve at the pleasure of the governor. Instead, the commissioner has a six-year term to lessen the potential political pressures on him.

The commissioner runs Iowa’s Workers Compensation Division, which handles cases involving people who are hurt on the job. The division decides issues relating to their medical care and their eligibility for certain other benefits.

During Godfrey’s time as commissioner, the backlog of cases waiting to be decided was reduced significantly. The rates businesses paid for workers’ compensation insurance remained steady.

One month after Terry Branstad defeated Culver in the November 2010 election, the governor-elect wrote to Godfrey and then met with him in person. He demanded that Godfrey resign. Godfrey refused, reminding Branstad his term as commissioner did not end until April 2015.

Six months after taking office, Branstad and Reynolds summoned Godfrey to another meeting. This time, there was a threat: If he did not resign, his salary would be cut to the lowest amount allowed by Iowa law.

During these meetings, according to court documents, neither Branstad, nor Reynolds, nor their aides cited any problems with Godfrey’s job performance.

There was no mention that he is a Democrat and Branstad and Reynolds are Republicans. There was no mention of the business leaders who urged Branstad to put someone in as commissioner who was sympathetic to business. There was no mention that Godfrey was the only department head in the Branstad administration who was openly gay.

But the governor followed through on his threat and chopped Godfrey’s salary from $112,000 to $73,000 — a reduction of 34 percent.

Godfrey responded by suing Branstad and Reynolds for discrimination and retaliation.

Godfrey’s lawyer, Roxanne Conlin, said of the Branstad/Reynolds tactic, “It would be as though the governor decided he wanted different justices on the Supreme Court and just fired them all or decreased their salaries to the bottom of the range.”

In the six and a half years since the lawsuit began, the taxpayers of Iowa have paid George LaMarca, Branstad and Reynold’s lawyer, an eye-popping $987,849 for his work on the case. But LaMarca recently withdrew, citing poor health. A new lawyer, Frank Harty, was hired in his place.

Harty will be paid $320 per hour, $5 less than LaMarca. But to give Harty time to become familiar with the case and the issues — knowledge that LaMarca’s partners already have — the trial has been postponed from January until after May 1.

That means the cost of the Branstad/Reynolds defense will close in on $1.25 million by the time the trial begins.

The potential cost to taxpayers will far exceed that amount if the state loses. Remember that $2 million verdict last year in the sexual harassment lawsuit filed against the state by the fired communications director for Iowa Senate Republicans?

If Godfrey wins, the taxpayers will be on the hook to pay him for damages he suffered. You and I also will be obligated to pay for Conlin’s fees, too, if Godfrey is victorious.

That could put the total cost of this mess at $3 million to $4 million.

Here’s what ought to cause steam to shoot out of your ears:

If Branstad and Reynolds had not monkeyed with Godfrey’s salary — reducing it by a cumulative total of about $150,000 — he would have been gone in April 2015 when his term ended. (As it was, Godfrey resigned eight months early when he accepted a job with the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C.)

As things turned out, that $150,000 in salary “savings” only covered George LaMarca’s work for about 11 weeks.

That’s not what most Iowans think is a good deal.

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Randy Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.

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