- Associated Press - Thursday, December 22, 2016

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - An Iowa judge who was accused of insurance fraud and fired shortly after helping expose improper influence in Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration has been charged with a felony - two years later.

Former Administrative Law Judge Susan Ackerman surrendered Wednesday on the charge of making fraudulent submissions, which carries up to five years in prison. A complaint unsealed Thursday alleges Ackerman, 56, falsely certified that her married daughter was single so that she could receive state health insurance in 2013 and 2014. She was fired over the same allegation two years ago.

Ackerman has denied any criminal intent, noting that she asked a state human resources assistant for permission to add her daughter to the plan. Her supporters have argued that her firing and criminal investigation are retribution for her legislative testimony critical of the Republican governor and his aides. Ackerman’s union is appealing her termination, while she pursues a lawsuit claiming she suffered whistleblower retaliation.

Ackerman was booked at the Polk County Jail and released on bond after two hours in custody.

Another one of Ackerman’s daughters, Minneapolis attorney Jennifer Koockogey, said the state’s trying “to make an example” out of her mother to silence dissent.

“They are showing that, if you speak out against us, watch what happens,” said Koockogey, who isn’t involved in the allegations. “To call this anything but retaliation is incredibly naive. They’ve taken her livelihood and tried to destroy her reputation. Now, they’re trying to take her freedom. Has Iowa turned into a dictatorship?”

Koockogey predicted her mother will be exonerated, but added that “she’s going to have to walk through hell to get there.”

Under subpoena from a legislative committee, Ackerman and other judges testified in August 2014 that Iowa Workforce Development director Teresa Wahlert, a Branstad appointee, had pressured them to rule in favor of employers over workers in unemployment benefits disputes and created a hostile work environment. Ackerman criticized Branstad for supporting Wahlert “no matter what” and failing to investigate widespread concerns among judges.

The U.S. Department of Labor later agreed that Wahlert created “perceived pressure” on judges and directed the state to isolate them from intimidation as legally required.

Weeks after her testimony, Workforce Development officials say they discovered Ackerman lied on insurance forms so that her then-27-year-old daughter, Catherine Holcombe, would qualify for coverage.

Division of Criminal Investigation agents initiated the fraud investigation at Workforce Development’s request. The decision to charge Ackerman was made by the office of Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, a Democrat who said he was unaware that Ackerman had spoken out against Branstad.

Sarcone said that an assistant county prosecutor made the charging decision based on DCI’s investigative materials and politics didn’t enter into it.

“If we don’t feel we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, we’ll get rid of it. At the present time, there appears to be probable cause to go forward,” he said.

DCI spokesman Alex Murphy added that “politics does not play a role in this or any other criminal investigation.”

The Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board ruled in July 2015 that Ackerman didn’t commit an ethical violation and declined to take action against her law license, dismissing the Workforce Development complaint.

Holcombe was a graduate student separated from her husband in 2012 when Ackerman inquired about whether she could be added to the insurance. Monica Reynolds, a Workforce Development human resources assistant at the time, has testified that she advised Ackerman that Holcombe was eligible.

Ackerman wrote to Reynolds that her daughter appeared to be ineligible because she wasn’t yet divorced, and Reynolds responded: “who has to know she is married?” In Ackerman’s termination letter, Workforce Development officials told Ackerman that Reynolds’ approval “does not absolve you” for falsely certifying that Holcombe was single.

Ackerman’s evaluations were positive and she faced no discipline during her 15-year career. Her union argues she faced harsher treatment than similar employees, including one who received a 10-day suspension for adding his unmarried partner and her daughter to his benefits. Another Workforce Development judge supported by Wahlert gave false testimony under oath to lawmakers but wasn’t disciplined - even though the Attorney Disciplinary Board later admonished her for lying.

In her testimony, Ackerman accused Branstad’s administration of putting ideology ahead of good government. Ackerman said she was bothered by Branstad’s dismissal of the criticism as partisan attacks. She testified that she feared retaliation, saying: “This whole thing is kind of scary.”

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