Appeal in Godfrey case resurrects issues of discrimination and retaliation

The Iowa Judicial Branch Building. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Judicial Branch)

One year after the state of Iowa announced it was appealing a $1.5 million jury award for a former state official who alleged discrimination by former Gov. Terry Branstad, the decade-long dispute is finally moving toward resolution.

Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court notified attorneys in the case that oral arguments are scheduled for March 24, with each side given at least 15 minutes to make their case.

To date, the state has spent at least $2.4 million defending Branstad’s efforts to oust Christopher Godfrey as Iowa’s workers’ compensation commissioner. Attorneys for the state blame Godfrey for the expense, saying in court filings that Godfrey has “spent nine years litigating this politically motivated lawsuit.”

The state’s appeal raises several legal issues, some of which center on the fact that Branstad publicly admitted that in attempting to fire Godfrey he was responding to pressure from business and industry interests. Some of those same interests, Godfrey’s lawyers point out, had a problem with Godfrey and with his sexual orientation.

It was 15 years ago that then-Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, appointed Godfrey the state’s interim workforce compensation commissioner. The Iowa Senate confirmed the appointment, and in 2009 it reconfirmed him for a new six-year term.

Shortly after being elected governor in 2010, but before being sworn in, Branstad asked Godfrey for his resignation. Godfrey, who is gay, declined and said he intended to serve out his term. Branstad then cut Godfrey’s salary by almost $40,000, excluded Godfrey from a governor’s retreat and allegedly made claims that Godfrey was responsible for the increasing costs of workers’ compensation insurance premiums.

In 2012, Godfrey sued the state for wrongful termination and discrimination. When the case finally went to trial in 2019, Branstad, by then the U.S. ambassador to China, flew back to the United States and testified that he didn’t even know Godfrey was gay when he asked for his resignation.

Jurors sided with Godfrey and ruled against the governor and the state, which led to the current appeal.

In her final appeal briefs, Godfrey’s attorney, Roxanne Conlin, argues that while Branstad claimed to be responding to complaints from the business community in seeking Godfrey’s resignation, Godfrey’s sexual orientation “was widely known” within that community.

Conlin notes that Dennis Murdock, former Central Iowa Power Cooperative CEO and president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, testified that some members of the ABI board had withheld their support of Godfrey’s confirmation as commissioner because Godfrey was gay.

She also argues that the day after Branstad cut Godfrey’s salary, he publicly explained his actions by telling radio listeners they should “talk to the Iowa Association of Business and Industry. They are the ones that encouraged me to (replace Godfrey).”

Court records indicate John Gilliland, the vice president of ABI, became aware of Godfrey’s sexual orientation in 2006, and that in 2007, ABI lobbied against amending the Iowa Civil Rights Act to include protections based on sexual orientation.

Gilliland, Conlin says, personally opposed the 2009 Iowa Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage in Iowa, saying, “I was raised to — in my family church — that we supported the traditional marriage between a man and a woman.”

In 2010, Gilliland met frequently with Branstad’s transition team, was a trusted advisor to the governor’s staff, and lobbied them to get rid of Godfrey, Conlin says in court records.

She adds that the governor’s press secretary at the time, Tim Albrecht, admitted that Gilliland had enlisted him in the effort to force out Godfrey, and Gilliland later provided the governor’s communications manager with “talking points” on how to manage the fallout surrounding Branstad’s actions.

In her final appeal brief, Conlin notes that “Branstad admitted he never provided (Godfrey) with a performance evaluation and never looked at his personnel file or prior performance evaluations,” before asking for his resignation and cutting his pay.

The state’s lawyers argue that none of this indicates Branstad was aware of Godfrey’s sexual orientation.

“In this politically motivated lawsuit, every Democratic legislator that testified in Godfrey’s case-in-chief had previously sued Gov. Branstad,” the state argues. “While they apparently knew Godfrey was gay, their testimony focused on partisan jabs toward Republican politicians, including Branstad … Not one witness presented sworn testimony that Branstad knew Godfrey was gay.“

During the trial, the state argued that Branstad couldn’t be biased against gays because he had three gay friends, including one individual about whom Branstad testified, “He grew up on a farm up here in Hamilton County, Iowa. Farm kid. He’s gay, but he’s somebody that I respect a great deal, and I think he’s done a great job, and I know he’s had a partner for over ten years.”

An expert witness for Godfrey questioned why the former governor expressed his respect for the man by saying, “He’s gay, but …”

In his testimony, Branstad acknowledged that during the 2010 campaign he had said he was uncomfortable with same-sex marriage and that “it’s got to do with the whole structure of the American society. And a lot of people say when other ancient societies have gone this direction, it was the beginning of the end of their society.”

Responding to the state’s claim that the jury award of $1.5 million is excessive and was influenced by passion or prejudice, Conlin argues that “the highest elected official in the state, and his staff, violated the law when they slashed (Godfrey’s) salary by 35 percent without reason or notice, and based, in part, on his sexual orientation … No amount of money can truly make up for enduring the degrading treatment plaintiff was subjected to during the Branstad administration.”

Clark Kauffman
Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.