Judge throws out lawsuit brought by fired Iowa whistleblower
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A high-ranking Iowa investigator who was fired after blowing the whistle on speeding by Gov. Terry Branstad’s security detail will not have his day in court, a judge ruled Friday.
Judge David May, who was appointed by Branstad in 2016, dismissed all claims in a long-running lawsuit brought by former Division of Criminal Investigation agent Larry Hedlund. The ruling cancels a trial that had been scheduled for April 9 in the case, which exposed misconduct inside the Iowa Department of Public Safety and created a political headache for Branstad.
The ruling was denounced by supporters of Hedlund, now a Fort Dodge detective.
“They were out to get this guy. Right now it looks like they got away with it, but we’ll keep fighting,” said Hedlund’s attorney, Tom Duff, who pledged an appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court.
The case dates to April 2013, when an SUV zipped past Hedlund on Highway 20 in northern Iowa traveling at a high rate of speed. Hedlund reported the speeding to a dispatcher, who sent a trooper to respond. The SUV was clocked going 84 in a 65-mph zone. But the trooper declined to stop the SUV after seeing that the driver was another trooper transporting Branstad and then-Lt.-Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Hedlund complained to superiors Branstad’s drivers routinely sped, creating a safety hazard that needed to be addressed. They turned the tables on Hedlund, asking why he was working on a scheduled day off and removing him from duty pending a disciplinary investigation. Hedlund was then fired for what the department said was insubordination that started weeks earlier and was unrelated to the speeding incident. Hedlund had been clashing with his DCI superiors, opposing their reorganization plan.
Branstad denied any retaliation against Hedlund, saying at a news conference that his firing was “for the morale and for the safety and well-being of the department.” The governor’s driver, who was eventually ticketed, testified that he routinely sped because he took “great pride” in getting Branstad to events on time. State officials later warned troopers on the executive detail to obey the speed limit.
Hedlund was a 25-year department veteran who supervised cases in northern Iowa. He filed a lawsuit contending that his superiors wrongly destroyed his career for complaining about the speeding and other misconduct. He claimed that Branstad’s suggestion that he was a security threat was defamatory and that other employees engaged in far worse misconduct but weren’t fired.
He wrote that Hedlund and other state officers cannot bring wrongful termination lawsuits under an Iowa law intended to protect whistleblowers. Instead, May agreed with the state that they must appeal their terminations administratively through a governor-appointed board.
May ruled that Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China, didn’t defame Hedlund because the governor had “absolute privilege against liability” for statements made within the course of his duties.
May found that Hedlund did present “evidence of several bad acts by his superiors” that were potentially malicious, dishonest and intended to harass. But he said the conduct didn’t reach the high bar needed to prove a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Lastly, he found that Hedlund, now 60, failed to present enough evidence that age was a factor in the firing, siding with the state that remarks by his supervisor about Hedlund being in the “twilight of his career” and near retirement weren’t relevant.
The Iowa attorney general’s office, which defended the state, said it was pleased.
“We appreciate the hard work the judge put into the case,” spokesman Lynn Hicks said.
This version of the story corrects the location of the speeding incident to Highway 20 instead of Interstate 20 in paragraph 5.