- Associated Press - Monday, September 21, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - A tightly-guarded disciplinary investigation that ultimately exonerated three veteran, high-ranking Iowa State Patrol officials “ruined their reputations for no good reason,” one of their lawyers says.

The Iowa Department of Public Safety announced in April that Maj. Mike Winter, Maj. Todd Misel and Lt. Richard Pierce were on leave, pending an investigation into allegations of wrongdoing in the procurement of new handguns for state police officers. But in June, the department said further investigation found no crimes or violations of department policy and allowed the three to return to work.

Department officials have never said publicly what the three were accused of doing or released any investigation findings. And the department has withheld from Winter’s attorney, Doug Gross, the complaint and investigative report that led to his client’s 53-day removal from duty, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press through an open-records request.

In his first interview about the case Friday, Gross said he would keep pushing for access to the documents. He said he may consider additional efforts to force the state to reimburse $7,200 in legal fees that Winter, a 31-year department veteran, spent defending against the investigation.

“I’m just trying to get a copy of the file to find out what the heck precipitated this investigation for suspending these guys and ruining their reputations for no good reason,” he said. “These are outstanding people that have the finest and highest reputations, a huge commitment to the state and organization, and they are besmirching them right before the ends of their careers. It’s sad.”

Misel’s attorney, Jeffrey Boehlert, added in a statement Monday that his client “is a really good man who was unnecessarily subjected to unfounded, hurtful insinuations.”

The investigation stemmed from department’s selection of Smith & Wesson to supply handguns after an unusual and lengthy bidding process. Nearly 800 weapons were purchased, then returned after testing revealed safety concerns.

Winter was accused of violations such as fraud, conspiracy and misconduct in office when he was placed on leave - allegations that turned out to be unfounded, the newly released records show. The specifics are unclear.

The department’s executive officer, Jeff Ritzman, told Gross in a June 9 letter that it would make the complaint summary and investigative report available “as soon as possible.” But the department reversed course after ending the investigation, arguing the documents were confidential.

In a department-wide email last week, before the department released its correspondence with Gross to The Associated Press, Public Safety Commissioner Roxann Ryan said witness statements were being withheld because employees only have a right to see them after discipline is imposed. Because none of the officials was suspended without pay, demoted or fired, those statements “will not be provided to the subjects of the investigation or their attorneys, or the public,” the email said.

Ryan said the department is withholding other documents because they fall under exemptions to the open-records law for confidential personnel information and attorney-work product. Those include findings of two retired Division of Criminal Investigation agents who were hired to conduct an audit of the procurement, and a separate administrative investigation conducted by department officials before the three were placed on leave.

She said the department was “circumspect in the types of information that we release” to limit the risk of defamatory statements.

“Even when the information is true, widespread publication could result in defamation,” she wrote. “There is no guarantee that all appropriate or relevant information that is released will actually be provided in a public forum, and the more conservative approach is to maintain confidentiality when legally permissible.”

She added, “Transparency is important, but it must be weighed against other legitimate privacy concerns.”

Ryan also defended the state’s refusal to pay Winter’s legal fees. Gross requested reimbursement for Winter under a law that allows officers to have their legal fees covered by taxpayers when they are accused of a “public offense” and acquitted. Ryan said that law only applies to criminal charges.


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