Spokesman: Governor Terry Branstad uses neither public nor private e-mail

E-mailing practices by government officials have drawn an unusual amount of scrutiny this year, thanks to the national press corps’ months-long fixation on Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server and e-mail account during her years as secretary of state. Though the most sensational reports about Clinton’s e-mails were wrong, a drumbeat of news articles and commentary pointed to her private e-mail use as a scandal, or at least a serious political problem.

For years, people who have submitted records requests for Governor Terry Branstad’s e-mails have been told the governor does not use e-mail. So I was surprised this week to see footage of Branstad telling his top donor and Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter to “send me an e-mail” with facts about Bruce Harreld, at the time a candidate for the University of Iowa presidency. Iowa Public Television’s “Governor Branstad: Behind the Scenes” documentary includes video of Branstad talking with Rastetter during the Iowa State Fair. I transcribed the brief conversation here.

In light of Branstad’s comment to Rastetter, I asked the governor’s communications director Ben Hammes to clarify whether Branstad has an e-mail account for official or private use. He replied, “The governor does not use email or have email. The governor was referring to sending information to our office, which is what he asks of constituents, when he is traveling around Iowa. He will often ask them to send information to the appropriate policy person in our office.”

Since Branstad asked Rastetter to send “me” an e-mail (rather than asking for the background to be sent to his staff), I asked Hammes whether he could confirm that the governor never communicates directly with Rastetter or with anyone else via e-mail, and that “people wishing to e-mail information to the governor can do so only by e-mailing intermediaries.” Hammes responded, “Correct. The governor does not have an email account.” Duly noted with regret, since the lack of an official e-mail account will make it harder for reporters and future historians to reconstruct Branstad’s actions and decision-making process during his fifth and sixth terms.

On a related note, today’s New York Times reported that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter “relied on a personal email account to conduct a portion of his government business during his first months at the Pentagon.” Today’s lead editorial in the Des Moines Register took Des Moines City Council member Christine Hensley to task for, among other things, using a private e-mail account to discuss city business. The newspaper also criticized city policy that allows officials to search for and disclose e-mails that are the subject of open records requests, because those people “lack the technical expertise to conduct document searches” and “have a strong motive to withhold damaging emails they have sent or received.” Hensley is refusing to release a legal opinion on whether she should recuse herself from a policy matter because of a potential conflict of interest. The controversy doesn’t reflect well on the longtime city council member, who I believe is positioning herself to be Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett’s running mate for the 2018 governor’s race.

UPDATE: I had forgotten that Branstad admitted during a deposition last year to using a Blackberry. More details on that are below. I am seeking further comment on whether the governor receives work-related or private messages from people on that Blackberry.

DECEMBER 21 UPDATE: Hammes was quick to respond to my first questions on this topic last week, but four days since I followed up with a question about the Blackberry, still radio silence from the governor’s office.

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Thoughts on Terry Branstad's longevity and legacy

Terry Branstad front photo photo_front_gov_zpsobbhiahu.png

December 14 marked 7,642 days that Terry Branstad has been governor of Iowa, making him the longest-serving governor in U.S. history, according to Eric Ostermeier of the Smart Politics website. Because most states have term limits for governors, “The odds of anyone passing [Branstad] in the 21st Century are next to none,” Ostermeier told Catherine Lucey of the Associated Press.

Speaking about his legacy, Branstad has emphasized the diversification of Iowa’s economy, even though a governor has far less influence over such trends than Branstad seems to believe. Some have cited “fiscal conservatism” as a hallmark of Branstad’s leadership. I strongly disagree. The man who has been governor for nearly half of my lifetime is stingy about spending money on education and some other critical public services. He opposes bonding initiatives commonly used in other states to fund infrastructure projects (“you don’t borrow your way to prosperity”). But he is happy to provide tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations that don’t need the help, without any regard for the future impact of those tax expenditures on the state budget. Many of Iowa’s “giveaways” in the name of economic development will never pay for themselves.

Branstad’s governing style has changed Iowa in important ways. He has altered Iowans’ expectations for their governor. He has expanded executive power at the expense of both the legislative branch and local governments. And particularly during the last five years, he has given corporate interests and business leaders more control over state policy. More thoughts on those points are after the jump, along with excerpts from some of the many profiles and interviews published as today’s landmark approached.

P.S.- Speaking of Branstad doing what business elites want him to do, Iowa Public Television’s “Governor Branstad: Behind the Scenes” program, which aired on December 11, included a telling snippet that I’ve transcribed below. During a brief chat at the Iowa State Fair, Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter asked Branstad to call Bruce Harreld, at that time one of the candidates to be president of the University of Iowa. That Rastetter asked Branstad to reassure Harreld was first reported right after the Board of Regents hired the new president, but I didn’t know they had the conversation in public near a television camera.

P.P.S.-Now that Branstad has made the history books, I remain convinced that he will not serve out his sixth term. Sometime between November 2016 and July 2017, he will resign in order to allow Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds to run for governor in 2018 as the incumbent. Although Branstad clearly loves his job, he is highly motivated to make Reynolds the next governor. She lacks a strong base of support in the Republican Party, because she was relatively inexperienced and largely unknown when tapped to be Branstad’s running mate in 2010. Even assuming she is the incumbent, Reynolds strikes me as more likely to lose than to win a statewide gubernatorial primary. Remaining in Branstad’s shadow would give Reynolds little chance of topping a field that will probably include Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.

P.P.S.S.-I will always believe Branstad could have been beaten in 1990, if Democrats had nominated a stronger candidate than Don Avenson. Attorney General Tom Miller lost that three-way primary for one reason only: he was against abortion rights. Miller later changed that stance but never again ran for higher office.

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Chris Godfrey's lawsuit against Branstad administration takes another detour to Iowa Supreme Court

Nearly four years have passed since Governor Terry Branstad and his senior staffers tried to strong-arm Iowa Workers Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey into resigning years before the end of his fixed term, but the lawsuit Godfrey filed in early 2012 won’t be heard in court anytime soon. Grant Rodgers reported for the Des Moines Register today that before the case goes to trial, the Iowa Supreme Court will rule on whether Godfrey “can invoke the Iowa Constitution to win monetary damages from the state in his lawsuit against Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and four former state officials.” Excerpts are after the jump, but you should click through to read the whole story. Godfrey’s attorney Roxanne Conlin appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court after Polk County District Court Judge Brad McCall “tossed out Godfrey’s four constitution-based claims in an April order.”

Last summer, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Godfrey could sue Branstad and five other administration officials individually for defamation, extortion and other claims, in addition to pursuing general claims and tort claims against the state of Iowa.  The governor contends that neither he nor his staffers discriminated against Godfrey, and that he was seeking to appoint a commissioner who would be more sympathetic to business owners. Depositions began in the fall of 2014, and a trial date had been set for November of this year. The Iowa Supreme Court is likely to resolve the new constitutional issue sometime in 2016.

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Five reasons Teresa Wahlert's days are numbered at Iowa Workforce Development

I don’t expect Governor Terry Branstad to replace many state agency leaders going into his sixth term, but before too long he will need to find a new head of Iowa Workforce Development. Although he will probably nominate Teresa Wahlert for that post again, the Iowa Senate will likely reject her confirmation. Here’s why:

1. Wahlert needs at least ten Democrats to join the 24 incoming Iowa Senate Republicans in order to be confirmed. She was confirmed in 2011 with only two votes to spare; two of the twelve Democratic senators who backed her then no longer serve in the Iowa legislature, and several who remain in the Senate have been critical of various Branstad administration policies implemented by Wahlert.

2. Wahlert presided over dismantling staffed Iowa Workforce Development field offices in dozens of communities, following a Branstad line-item veto that was eventually struck down by a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court.

3. Wahlert is a defendant in a lawsuit filed by former Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey. Depositions are happening soon in that case, following an Iowa Supreme Court ruling earlier this year.

4. Wahlert is also a defendant in a lawsuit filed by Joseph Walsh, the former Chief Administrative Law Judge for Iowa Workforce Development. Among other things, Walsh alleges that Wahlert “interfere[d] with the administrative judicial process in order to favor employers,” attempted “to illegally strip [Walsh] of his merit protection,” and eventually retaliated by removing him in “a political reorganization disguised as a budget layoff.”

5. Just this week, an arbitrator ruled that Wahlert “overstepped her bounds when she promoted a judge who had been demoted after complaints that she created a hostile work environment.” After the jump I’ve posted excerpts from David Pitt’s report for the Associated Press.

No wonder State Senator Janet Petersen has predicted that Wahlert would face a tough confirmation process if re-appointed by Branstad. He could save everyone a lot of time by choosing new leadership for Iowa Workforce Development.

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Terry Branstad's vendetta against Chris Godfrey looks even dumber

Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey submitted his resignation to Governor Terry Branstad yesterday in order to become chief judge of the Employee’s Compensation Appeal Board in Washington, D.C. later this month. I haven’t seen any official reaction from the Branstad administration. The governor has been trying to get rid of Godfrey since late 2010, even though the Iowa Senate had unanimously confirmed him to a fixed term as Workers’ Compensation Commissioner until 2015. During the summer of 2011, Branstad docked Godfrey’s pay after sending his chief of staff and legal counsel to demand his resignation one more time. The governor couldn’t articulate any reason for being dissatisfied with Godfrey, other than saying, “business groups in Iowa […] told me in no uncertain terms that they were not happy with the direction under Mr. Godfrey.” Branstad staffers publicly criticized Godfrey’s work, which along with the pay reduction and pressure to resign led to a defamation and discrimination lawsuit against the state of Iowa and six senior officials, including Branstad and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds.

Last month, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Godfrey can sue individual officials as well as the State of Iowa for defamation, extortion and other claims. Yesterday, Godfrey’s attorney Roxanne Conlin confirmed that the lawsuit will move forward. I’ve posted her comments below, along with reaction from Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jack Hatch. Polk County District Court Judge Arthur Gamble told attorneys last week that a firm trial date will be set for sometime in 2015. Depositions are only just beginning in a case that has already cost the state of Iowa more than $500,000 in legal fees.

If Godfrey weren’t doing his job well, he would not have been offered a more senior and prestigious position in the same line of work. I don’t know whether Branstad wanted to get rid of him because Godfrey is openly gay, as the lawsuit alleges, or because the governor was taking marching orders from business groups. Either way, the governor never should have bullied and badgered this highly capable person, and the state should have settled this lawsuit a long time ago.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- Has any Iowa governor ever hired a worse legal counsel than Brenna Findley? She’s supposed to steer her boss away from legal problems, not provide fodder for a lawsuit. Nor is this case her only misstep. Last summer, Findley contradicted legal advice from the Iowa Attorney General’s office and the attorney for the Iowa Board of Medicine, encouraging that board to move forward with abortion restrictions that have been temporarily blocked and will probably be struck down in a separate lawsuit.

UPDATE: Todd Dorman hits on the most disturbing aspect of this “saga”: “Truth is, governors have the power to make dozens and dozens of powerful appointments. The fact that Branstad would go to these lengths to get his hands on one job that eluded his grasp tells you quite a bit about how he views the limits of executive power. After nearly 20 years, he doesn’t see any.”

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