- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - State officials are asking the Iowa Supreme Court to reject a new job protection designed to prohibit police officers from facing politically motivated firings for enforcing laws.

The added safeguard for Department of Public Safety officers who blow the whistle on improper and criminal conduct isn’t necessary because they already are entitled to pre-termination hearings and can only be fired for cause, assistant attorney general Julie Bussanmas told justices in a court brief last month. Firings based on political retaliation would never stand, she added.

She urged justices to reject an appeal by former Division of Criminal Investigation agent Larry Hedlund, who contends he was unfairly removed from duty in 2013 days after complaining about Gov. Terry Branstad’s speeding state vehicle.

Hedlund’s attorney, Tom Duff, has asked the court to rule that state public policy protects officers from retaliation for enforcing traffic and criminal laws. Such a finding would give hundreds of sworn DPS officers more legal protections if they report misconduct and allow them to file wrongful termination lawsuits seeking damages if they’re fired. In his March brief, Duff argued that officers shouldn’t have to choose between enforcing laws against powerful city and state leaders or putting their jobs in jeopardy.

Without the protection, officers “likely will remain silent when it’s in the public’s best interest for them to blow the whistle,” he wrote.

Responding on behalf of DPS and Branstad, Bussanmas wrote that state troopers and agents already have adequate protection because they can appeal proposed terminations and demotions to the Employment Appeal Board. She noted the department cannot reduce officers’ pay or fire them until the board rules on whether the action is justified, protections she says “prevent the exact type of terminations for which Hedlund complains.”

“A termination based solely on an officer’s decision to enforce a criminal law against the governor would never withstand good cause scrutiny,” she wrote.

Bussanmas noted that Hedlund dropped his appeal through the board and chose to retire from the department while pursuing his lawsuit.

But Duff argued that appealing a proposed termination wasn’t fair for whistleblowers such as Hedlund, because all three members are appointed by the governor and, even if they ruled in Hedlund’s favor, the only remedy they could order is reinstatement. Reinstatement is not realistic since Hedlund was suing superiors and wouldn’t adequately be compensated for damages to his career and reputation, he argued.

The dispute dates to May 2013, when an SUV zipped past Hedlund on Highway 20. Hedlund, a DCI supervisor in Fort Dodge, told a dispatcher the vehicle was doing “a hard 90.” Officers responded, and one clocked the vehicle traveling 84 in a 65 mph zone. Following a pursuit, a trooper let the vehicle go without being stopped after realizing the driver was a fellow trooper who was transporting Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Hedlund complained to superiors that the pursuit endangered public safety and the governor’s detail had a history of speeding with impunity. He said he was considering reporting the incident to prosecutors.

Instead of responding to his complaint, a superior asked why Hedlund was working on a scheduled day off. Superiors stripped the 25-year department veteran of his gun and badge and put him on leave days later. He was later given notice of termination for what the department called insubordination.

Branstad has denied any role in the firing, which was ordered by his then-DPS commissioner, Brian London. The trooper who was driving the governor was eventually cited for speeding, and the episode revealed that hundreds of local, state and federal government vehicles had unmarked license plates that let them avoid tickets from red light and traffic cameras.

The city of Fort Dodge has recently hired Hedlund as a police officer. The court hasn’t decided on a timeline to rule on Hedlund’s appeal.

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