Branstad insists he pressured Workers' Comp official because of business, not bias

New details have emerged about Governor Terry Branstad’s testimony in the lawsuit Iowa’s former Workers’ Compensation Commissioner filed three years ago, charging discrimination, defamation, and other claims. Ryan Foley of the Associated Press reported highlights from the transcript of Branstad’s deposition last November.

Before Branstad returned to the governor’s office, Chris Godfrey had been confirmed as Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner to a fixed term ending in 2015. Branstad asked Godfrey to resign anyway, and Godfrey refused. After senior staffers to the governor also failed to persuade Godfrey to step down, Branstad cut his pay to the lowest level allowed by law.

In January 2012, Godfrey filed suit against the State of Iowa and several officials, including Branstad, charging defamation, discrimination, extortion, and breach of contract, among other things. The plaintiff alleges he was discriminated against because he is gay; the governor and other officials have denied knowing Godfrey’s sexual orientation when they tried to get him to resign.

The lawsuit was delayed by the state’s efforts to have claims against individual defendants dismissed, but the Iowa Supreme Court ruled last year that a District Court could consider whether Godfrey can sue Branstad and other officials as well as the state. The trial will begin later this year.

Godfrey’s attorney Roxanne Conlin took Branstad’s deposition (sworn out-of-court testimony) a few weeks after the 2014 general election. The Associated Press requested a copy of the transcript, and Ryan Foley looked through its 400+ pages for this article. The governor continues to assert that he had no knowledge of Godfrey’s sexual orientation until after he cut his pay in the summer of 2011. As he has insisted all along, Branstad said in the deposition that he wanted a change of Workers’ Compensation Commissioner because of concerns from the business community. Foley provided new details:

[T]he deposition revealed that those leaders included Beef Products Inc. founders Eldon and Regina Roth, top donors to Branstad’s 2010 campaign with $152,000 in contributions.

Branstad testified that he recalled having a “very serious” meeting with the Roths about their concerns in 2010 at the company’s headquarters in Dakota Dunes, S.D., which is near the Iowa border. The company makes a lean, finely textured beef, which critics call it “pink slime,” and had a processing plant in Iowa at the time.

“They said they were concerned about the direction that the workers’ compensation commission was going in Iowa, that it was driving up the costs of their business, and making the state of Iowa less competitive,” Branstad testified.

Branstad’s attorney, George LaMarca, said Wednesday that the governor acted lawfully in asking for Godfrey’s resignation and cutting his pay. He said “no one person or business influenced the governor” on the matter.

When “pink slime” was all over the news three years ago, Branstad was one of the most vocal defenders of the product and its manufacturing process.

Godfrey now works for the federal government as chief judge of the Employee’s Compensation Appeal Board. He told the Associated Press that it was “very, very troubling” the Roths would “use political influence like that.” According to Godfrey, Beef Products Inc. had a case before one of his deputies related to a 2007 work-related injury.

The governor’s testimony should help his legal defense; even if Godfrey can show that he faced a hostile work environment after Branstad returned to office, it would be difficult to prove that he was discriminated against because of sexual orientation. Politically, the testimony doesn’t reflect well on Branstad’s leadership, though. The governor should not be taking marching orders from business groups or major donors like the Roths.

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