Shorter Terry Branstad: The business group made me do it

This post was supposed to be about Governor Terry Branstad interfering with the Iowa Board of Regents. News broke on Monday that the governor leaned on the Regents’ elected president and president pro-tem to resign as board officers early, so that Branstad appointees could take charge right away.

That’s inappropriate and unprecedented, but it’s not even the most outrageous Branstad power grab of the week. The governor urged Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey to resign four years before the end of his appointed term. When Godfrey declined the request, Branstad had his staff ask again for Godfrey’s resignation. When Godfrey refused, Branstad slashed his pay by a third.

When asked to explain his actions, Branstad passed the buck to the Iowa Association of Business and Industry. Details are after the jump.

Governor Tom Vilsack appointed Godfrey in 2006 to finish out Mike Trier’s term as Workers’ Compensation Commissioner. In 2009, Governor Chet Culver reappointed Godfrey, who was unanimously confirmed by the Iowa Senate for a full term that expires in 2015.

Last November, Governor-elect Terry Branstad asked all state agency and department heads for their resignations. Godfrey declined, on the grounds that Iowa Code sets the term for his position at six years. This week senior Branstad staffers met with Godfrey to ask for his resignation again:

“When I said, ‘No,’ I was asked by Jeff Boeyink, the Governor’s Chief of Staff and Brenna Findley, the Governor’s attorney, if it would change my mind if they told me my salary would be cut to the bottom of my pay scale,” says Godfrey. “I told them I did not intend to resign and at that point I was told, ‘Then consider your salary cut.’ And by the time I got back to the office, Human Resources had received an email, cutting my salary.”

Speaking to Radio Iowa yesterday, Godfrey said he was “shocked by what I would call, maybe, the extortion, being put on the spot about my salary.” Boeyink denied that charge:

“There were no threats. There were no discussions of any quid pro quos. This was a situation where Mr. Godfrey made a decision not to resign and we made a decision to reduce his salary,” Boeyink says. “It’s as simple as that and for him to characterize it as something more than that would simply be inaccurate.”

According to Boeyink, Godfrey was called into a meeting that lasted less than five minutes and, when the commissioner was asked to reconsider and resign – and failed to do so, Boeyink says Godfrey was told his pay would be cut.

“This was a professional conversation between professionals and we had a disagreement about whether he should be serving in this position,” Boeyink says, “and for him to use language like ‘extortion’ is inappropriate.”

Branstad’s communications chief says the governor disagrees with the way the workers compensation commissioner is handling the office.

The question is, what does Branstad have against the way Godfrey is handling his job? Iowa Democrats pointed out yesterday that the Work Loss Data Institute ranked Iowa in the top five states on its 2010 Workers’ Comp report card. Iowa was the top-ranked state on the institute’s 2009 report card as well.

A caller challenged Branstad on his treatment of Godfrey during last night’s “Ask the Governor” program on WHO radio. The Iowa Democratic Party posted the audio here, and the Iowa Senate Democrats published the full transcript of the Q and A:

Moderator: Hi, you’re on with Governor Branstad, go ahead.

Caller: Thank you. Governor, I’d like to talk to you about the decision to cut the pay of Commissioner Godfrey, since he did not resign at your request. Commissioner Godfrey is charged with administering the law and seeing that the law, with respect to workplace injuries, is fairly applied to both employers and employees in this state. So, our workers compensation system came about in 1913, and if they’ve proven compromise between business and industry and the rights of workers…

Governor Branstad: I’m very much aware of that. He’s been an advocate for one side before he came into this position. And since he got into that position, the cost of workers comp for Iowa businesses has gone up dramatically. I think we can find somebody that’s more fair.

Caller: Actually, if you look at his track record, more than half of his practice before he became commissioner was on behalf of employers…

Governor Branstad: Yeah, he worked for IBP, I know he did that.

Caller: And then he also worked for Pingel and Templer defending businesses. So actually, the majority of his history before he became commissioner was on behalf of business and industry, and in fact…

Governor Branstad: Right, but the record as commissioner is what we’re concerned about. And that record is the state is going in the wrong direction. I believe as Governor I should have the ability to choose my own team that can help us attract more business and jobs and make the state more competitive.

Caller: Well with all due respect, the Work Loss Data Institute ranks Iowa as the top five in the nation under Commissioner Godfrey’s administration. This is an, what is [inaudible] seen as an independent organization, but actually it’s funded by business and industry. And business and industry looks at our workers comp system in Iowa as being top five in the nation.

Governor Branstad: Talk to the Iowa Association of Business and Industry. They’re the ones that encouraged me to make a change there. So the business groups in Iowa are the ones that told me in no uncertain terms that they were not happy with the direction under Mr. Godfrey. And I feel that what we’ve done is appropriate. And I just would like to have a new direction in that agency.

That’s all you’ve got, governor? A business lobbying group gave you marching orders “in no uncertain terms”? Why can’t you tell us how Godfrey has erred in deciding disputed workers’ compensation cases?

Today’s news suggests that individual business executives, rather than ABI as an organization, pushed the governor to replace Godfrey. Iowa Association of Business and Industry President Mike Ralston told the Des Moines Register, “I have not talked with the governor about that and to the best of my knowledge no ABI staff member has.”

Ralston said he’s aware that individual business that belong to ABI have talked with the governor about concerns like contested workers’ compensation claims are being handled consistently.

But ABI has not taken a stand for or against Godfrey, Ralston said. He declined to identify which companies that he is aware of have voiced concerns to the governor.

Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Branstad, acknowledged that ABI never specifically requested the resignation of Godfrey. However, there were conversations with the governor and ABI leadership about the increasing costs of workers’ compensation premiums, he said. Additionally, Albrecht said the governor has talked with a number of businesses concerned with Godfrey’s job performance.

Albrecht declined to identify business or individuals who voiced such concerns.

“The fact is the governor sought the resignation of department and agency heads in November, and Mr. Godfrey refused this request,” Albrecht said. “Because he does not have the full faith and confidence of the governor, his pay was lowered to reflect his performance.”

I am not aware of any other Iowa governor punishing a predecessor’s appointee in this way. Acting on the advice of the Attorney General’s Office, Governor Chet Culver allowed the director of the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Division to serve out his fixed term, even though there were credible allegations of misconduct.

Branstad can’t seriously claim he hasn’t been able to chart a “new direction” in state government. He has appointed hundreds of people to state jobs, boards and commissions. The Iowa Senate confirmed all but two of his choices.

Jason Clayworth wrote in his report for the Des Moines Register,

Iowa’s governor has the power to appoint dozens of top positions in state government and there is generally a large turnover when a new administration is elected.

However, there are purposely a handful of positions appointed by a governor and confirmed by the Senate that have terms that often carry into multiple administrations. Such positions are better sheltered from political influence, especially important in positions such as workers’ compensation claims, noted Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo.

I will say this: Branstad delegated his hatchet work to the right people. Boeyink spent most of his career on the staff of Iowans for Tax Relief, a pro-business lobby group. Findley made clear during her 2010 campaign for Iowa attorney general that she supports less regulation of business and less enforcement of current regulations on business.

In a written statement yesterday, Representative Bruce Braley slammed Branstad for interfering in a historically non-partisan agency: “It’s highly unusual for the Governor to pressure a Commissioner of this type into resignation. It’s one thing to surround yourself with staff of your choosing, it’s another to conduct a clearly political witch hunt against a qualified and competent employee.”

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