Gov. Branstad’s lawyer tries to dismiss lawsuit

DES MOINES – Lawyers for Gov. Terry Branstad want a discrimination lawsuit against the governor dismissed in federal court, arguing Tuesday that the suit was the same as one previously filed in state court.

Branstad’s attorneys appeared in U.S. District Court in Des Moines to seek the dismissal. They said the suit filed by Iowa Workers Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey this year is similar to one he filed in state court last year. Godfrey alleges that Branstad and top staffers discriminated against him because he’s gay.

“This case has been in state court for 18 months,” said Branstad’s attorney George A. LaMarca. “It’s simply another bite at the apple and there’s no reason why we should have two parallel cases.”

But Godfrey’s attorney, Roxanne Conlin, says the systems are different and that she routinely files in state and federal court for these types of cases.

“There is no danger of duplication or different outcomes,” Conlin said.

Godfrey, who oversees disputes between injured workers and their employers in Iowa, sued in January 2012. Godfrey charges that the governor cut his salary by nearly $40,000 after he declined to resign.

The state suit is on hold until the Iowa Supreme Court rules on whether state officials have immunity against defamation.

Conlin argued Tuesday that Godfrey was treated unfairly for personal and political reasons.

“Can the governor decrease the plaintiff’s salary by 40 percent in order to force him to resign?” Conlin asked.

LaMarca insisted it was within the governor’s rights to reduce Godfrey’s salary within a pre-approved range.

“The outcome of this case is going to determine who has the discretion to set state salaries,” LaMarca said.

Godfrey has been commissioner since 2006, first appointed by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack and reappointed by former Gov. Chet Culver, also a Democrat. His term expires in April 2015. But he says Republican Branstad tried to force him out of his job and then illegally cut his salary from about $112,000 to $73,000 after Godfrey refused requests to quit.

Godfrey also charges that he was singled out and treated unfairly because he is gay. Godfrey says the Legislature established six-year terms for the commissioner to insulate the position from partisan politics. Since governors serve four-year terms, the commissioner appointed by the previous governor would have two years remaining to serve.

LaMarca has said Branstad was not aware of Godfrey’s sexual orientation at the time of the requests or salary reduction.

Godfrey said Tuesday that he’s planning to stay in the job, though the last two years have been hard. He said he had recently interviewed for a federal job, which he would consider taking.

“We’re over two years from when this extortion attempt started. It’s impacted my family, it’s impacted my division. It’s obviously an unfortunate situation that continues,” Godfrey said.