Four ways Brenna Bird shook up Iowa Attorney General's office

Brenna Bird wasted no time putting her mark on the Iowa Attorney General’s office. Big changes commenced before the Republican’s formal swearing in on January 5.


From the day she launched her second bid for statewide office, Bird was running as much against President Joe Biden as against her Democratic opponent longtime Attorney General Tom Miller. She frequently said she’d see Biden in court, and promised to “give Joe Biden exactly what he deserves” in her first television commercial (famous for its tag line, “Give ’em the Bird!”).

On her first day as attorney general, Bird formally signed onto several lawsuits that Governor Kim Reynolds had already joined on Iowa’s behalf. According to a January 3 news release, one case challenges Biden’s student loan debt relief, three are related to vaccination mandates, and one targets language in the 2021 American Rescue Plan that restricted states from using the federal relief funds to pay for tax cuts.

Bird told the Des Moines Register that she expects Biden to take more “unconstitutional executive action” in the coming years, since Democrats no longer control the U.S. House. She added, “it will become very important to step up and sue the federal government in that situation.”

She plans to set up a new unit in her office that will be focused on the federal government. Cases dealing with agriculture will be a particular focus, she said.

Side note: State Representative Gary Worthan, the top Iowa House Republican on the committee that drafts the Attorney General’s office budget, assailed Miller in 2018 for his supposedly “partisan” approach to suing the Trump administration. Worthan complained that Miller described his office as “financially stressed” but “seems to have ample resources to provide the funds and the man-hours to participate in multiple civil actions beyond the borders of our state.”

No doubt Iowa House and Senate appropriators will happily fund Bird’s expansion of “civil actions beyond the borders of our state,” now that those lawsuits will further Republican policy objectives.

Also on her first day in office, Bird took back one high-profile lawsuit that Miller had refused to handle. Going forward, the Attorney General’s office will represent Reynolds and the state in their effort to reinstate a 2018 abortion ban, which a court found unconstitutional and permanently enjoined four years ago. A Polk County District Court rejected all of the state’s legal arguments last month; the Iowa Supreme Court will likely hear the state’s appeal later this year. Bird said a January 3 news release, “I’m glad to go to court to defend Iowa’s statutes, especially those protecting innocent unborn babies.”

The new attorney general has not announced plans to drop any of the lawsuits Miller filed on behalf of Iowans, but that angle bears watching. Bird’s campaign received $2 million (about two-thirds of her total 2022 campaign contributions) from the Republican Attorneys General Association. That group receives substantial funding from corporate or industry groups and from conservative “dark money” groups aligned with corporate interests.

If Bird settles Miller’s most recent lawsuit against tobacco companies on terms favorable to the corporations, or withdraws from the multi-state lawsuit citing anticompetitive practices by pesticide manufacturers, her office is unlikely to call attention to the news. So readers with information about legal actions pursued (but not publicly announced) by the Iowa Attorney General’s office are encouraged to contact Laura Belin confidentially.


Before Bird started her new job, her designated Chief Deputy Attorney General Sam Langholz demanded resignations on her behalf from nineteen staffers; most are listed in this article by Jared Strong.

Langholz’s letters went out after hours on December 22 (the last working day for state employees before Christmas), and told recipients to submit letters of resignation by December 28. The resignations were to be effective at 8:30 am on January 3, and Langholz instructed the fired employees not to come to the office for any part of that day.

Solicitor General Jeff Thompson had already announced plans to retire at the end of December. Several others whom Bird fired expected to be let go. Former First Assistant Attorney General Matt Gannon wrote in his resignation letter, “As you take office, my time of service here will end. That is the natural order of these things. I wish you success. I have my doubts.”

Gannon told Bleeding Heartland he “had no illusion about remaining in the AG’s office given the result of the election.” Bird “gets to have her senior team, and I do wish them well.” He added that he enjoyed his opportunities to work with Langholz, who was Reynolds’ senior legal counsel before Miller brought him over to the Attorney General’s office in late 2020. Gannon added,

What disappointed me was that there was no effort on her part, to the best of my knowledge, to communicate any message to the full staff at any point before Dec. 22. It did not need to be anything consequential, just a message that she looked forward to the opportunities and challenges, change would be inevitable, etc., that at least acknowledged there was an office full of attorneys and staff that were otherwise in the dark. I do not think Dec. 22 put their best foot forward. Thus my doubts.

No one would expect Bird to keep on Miller’s most senior employees, like chief of staff Lynn Hicks or Chief Deputy Attorney General Nathan Blake. (He addressed his resignation letter to Miller, rather than to Langholz or Bird.)

However, Bird’s rapid decapitation of several divisions within the Attorney General’s office was surprising. Keeping some of those attorneys on for a while would have preserved institutional knowledge while new staff get up to speed.

Those shown the door include Human Services Division Director Chandlor Collins and the second-most senior staffer in that division, assistant attorney general Ellen Ramsey-Kacena. Collins wrote in his resignation letter, “I was disappointed to receive your request four days before Christmas, after hours, while on vacation leave; and without an opportunity to discuss with you and your transition team the rationale for the decision.” Human Services is the largest division within the Attorney General’s office.

Assistant attorney general Heather Adams, a specialist on public health who had worked in the Attorney General’s office for nearly 30 years, confirmed to Bleeding Heartland via email, “No one from the transition team spoke to me prior to December 22nd about my work or plans to make a change in my position.”

Adams added that she was disappointed to be asked to resign. “I have successfully represented Department directors and staff of both political parties over the years and have never viewed my role as a partisan one.”

Chantelle Smith, who had worked in the office for more than two decades and specialized in elder abuse, wrote in her resignation letter, “It has been my great honor serving the people of the state of Iowa—particularly the most vulnerable amongst us including older Iowans, veterans, and other at-risk individuals—and am disappointed that I was asked to resign.”

The Attorney General’s office has not announced who will replace Collins, Adams, or Smith.

Bird also asked for the resignations of Consumer Protection Division Director Jessica Whitney and the two people in the office who did the most work on the state’s latest tobacco-related lawsuit: Donn Stanley and Mari Culver. Culver is Iowa’s former first lady, and Stanley managed then Governor Chet Culver’s 2010 campaign.

In interviews and press releases, Bird has touted her plans for a “top down and bottom up audit of the victim services section of the office.” As part of that overhaul, she fired Sandi Tibbetts Murphy, who led the Crime Victim Assistance Division.

Bird picked Washington County Attorney John Gish to be her Assistant Attorney General for Victim Services. But staff in the Washington County attorney’s office told Bleeding Heartland that Gish’s first day at the Attorney General’s office will be January 30. In other words, the victim services division will be without a leader for almost this whole month, while Bird meets “with victims, advocates, prosecutors, law enforcement, and other stakeholders” about potential changes.


A solicitor general is typically a top-notch litigator with substantial courtroom experience. Bird went in the opposite direction.

Eric Wessan will serve as Solicitor General, leading the State’s representation in the United States Supreme Court, Iowa Supreme Court, and other state and federal appellate courts. He’ll play a critical role in Attorney General-elect Bird’s efforts to push back against the Biden Administration and defend all of Iowa’s statutes.

Wessan comes to the Iowa Attorney General’s office with less than two years under his belt as an associate (not a partner) in a global law firm’s Chicago office.

His bio on the King & Spalding website says Wessan “represents clients in complex, high-stakes civil litigation across a wide range of subject areas, including international arbitration, appeals, class actions, securities and shareholder litigation, mass tort and commercial disputes, and federal constitutional law.”

The page doesn’t say whether Wessan was lead counsel on any cases, doesn’t mention any successful litigation outcomes, and doesn’t link to any news stories about his work. Bio pages for King & Spalding partners routinely include such information.

In fairness to Wessan, he’s hardly had time to wrap up any big cases, since he just graduated from the University of Chicago Law School—the alma mater of Bird and her husband—in 2019. Wessan then clerked for two federal judges before entering private practice.

A post by Joe Patrice for the website Above the Law is circulating widely in central Iowa’s legal community. (At least half a dozen sources sent me the link.)

Patrice saw Wessan’s rise “From Law School Trolling To Solicitor General In Less Than 4 Years” as a sign of the times, when conservative students use “trollish campus behavior” to bolster their future careers. He recalled that in 2018, Wessan chaired the University of Chicago Law School’s Edmund Burke Society when the group distributed a flyer with inflammatory language ahead of a planned immigration policy debate.

The organization canceled the event and Wessan later apologized to “anyone who felt attacked or belittled” by the publication, which read in part: “Instead of being a porcelain receptacle for other nations’ wretched refuse, the United States should again put America first [….] If the essence of a nation is its people, allowing foreign bodies to enter is inviting disease into the body politic […] chain migration is only as strong as the weakest link; no engineer is worth the drag of a freeloading cousin.” The Burke Society claimed it had intended to use “hyperbolic language parodying both sides” of the issue.

Wessan also led the Federalist Society chapter at the University of Chicago law school, a resume line sure to win favor with conservatives like Langholz, a past leader of the Federalist Society’s Iowa Lawyers Chapter.

It’s hard to imagine how any attorney with so little litigation experience could capably argue before the Iowa Supreme Court, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, or U.S. Supreme Court.

The irony is, the first job listing posted for the Attorney General’s office this year seeks “two experienced criminal prosecutors with advanced trial skills to assist county attorneys with prosecution of felony-level violent crimes.”

For whatever reason, Bird doesn’t think a solicitor general needs “advanced trial skills.”


On the first day of Bird’s tenure, a massive amount of material was taken down from the Attorney General’s website, including a nine-year archive of a monthly newsletter focused on consumer protection and 24 years of news releases. The entire @AGIowa Twitter feed was wiped, and nearly three years’ worth of posts on Miller’s official Facebook page were removed as well.

A website revamp is normal, with a bio of the new office-holder and information about her plans and senior staff. But the new site doesn’t even link to an archive of the office’s past work.

While some of the scrubbed pages relate to policies Bird opposed, or political statements such as Miller praising Merrick Garland’s appointment as U.S attorney general, most of the news releases and virtually all of the consumer newsletters have no trace of partisanship.

Browsing the materials through the Wayback Machine, I wondered why Bird’s team wasn’t more selective about the website purge. Sure, the new boss disagrees with many of Miller’s legal decisions. Still, shouldn’t Iowans be able to find information about settlements related to location tracking practice or data breaches, or warnings about fraudulent mailings? Why would an attorney general who is devoted to serving crime victims take down releases about efforts to address the backlog of untested sexual assault kits?

Some general consumer tips remain available on the website, but the monthly newsletters covered many kinds of scams and pitfalls in greater depth.

It’s unclear how removing all of that information furthers Bird’s supposed commitment to “giving the best service possible to the people of Iowa.”

Top photo of Brenna Bird first published on her social media on January 3, 2022.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin

  • "Cases dealing with agriculture will be a particular focus."

    When I first read that in the REGISTER, a chill went down my spine. What does it mean?

    Already it would not be that much of a political stretch to claim that Iowa interstate signs should read “Welcome to Iowa, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Iowa Farm Bureau.” What more does Bird have in mind?

  • Yikes

    My worst fears about the new AG are being realized. Might as well just put “Federalist Society” on the ballot next time instead of her name.

    The Dems need to find someone and start prepping a serious candidate for 2026. We need to take this office back from the extremists!

  • Excellent reporting, as always Laura.

    Well, this is what we get for “givin’ ’em the bird”. The fact that there are radical trolls and Federalist Society types in the AG’s office is really troubling. I just hope they take the jobs seriously and don’t assume that good government work just doesn’t happen automatically. It’s scary that she’s putting young and unqualified people in positions of immense power and responsibility. It also seems like they’re swooping into office with a real haughty arrogance. And they have an unnecessarily bad and icy attitude towards Miller and his staff, who hardly seem like villains to me.

    I just hope Bird’s tenure as AG isn’t going to be as disastrous as I’m afraid it will be.