Judge: Firing of Iowa agent who reported governor's speeding SUV didn't violate public policy

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IOWA CITY, Iowa — The firing of an investigator who reported Gov. Terry Branstad's speeding SUV wasn't a wrongful discharge in violation of public policy, a judge ruled Monday in dismissing a key claim in the agent's lawsuit.

Former Division of Criminal Investigation agent Larry Hedlund contends he was fired in retaliation for complaining about Branstad's speed, and his attorney had argued that his job should have been protected because state law requires Department of Public Safety officers to enforce traffic laws.

But Judge Dennis Stovall ruled that while Hedlund had a legal obligation to enforce traffic laws, that is "too vague and general" of a public policy to give him added legal protection against discharge. Hedlund also didn't show a "compelling need" for the protection since he had other job safeguards, including the ability to administratively appeal his firing, Stovall added.

Hedlund's claims of wrongful discharge under state law, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress against Branstad and three former superiors can proceed, Stovall ruled.

Hedlund initiated a traffic pursuit in May 2013 involving an SUV that sped past him doing "a hard 90" mph on a highway. A deputy clocked the vehicle traveling 84 in a 65-mph zone. But a trooper ultimately declined to issue a ticket after seeing it was a fellow trooper who was driving Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Hedlund complained to then-DCI Director Chari Paulson that the vehicle should've been stopped, saying the speeding jeopardized public safety. The agency removed Hedlund from duty within days and fired him 2 ½ months later for what department officials called insubordination. Branstad said later that Hedlund's firing was unrelated to the speeding complaint, and necessary for the "morale and safety and well-being of the department."

Hedlund's attorney, Tom Duff, said he disagreed with the ruling and was considering an appeal. He said it might have a chilling effect on other officers.

"There might be some cop out there that might think twice about enforcing the law if it involves someone that is powerful," he said.

Stovall cited a 2004 Iowa Supreme Court ruling that dismissed a lawsuit filed by a private Drake University security guard who was fired after pepper-spraying a student. In that case, justices rejected the argument that it was wrong as a matter of public policy for employers to fire workers trying to uphold criminal laws.

Hedlund argued his claim was different, noting the legal duties imposed on state agents. Stovall — appointed by Branstad in 1995 — acknowledged that public policy "favoring protection of the lives and property of citizens is of the utmost importance." But he said the law cited by Hedlund "merely enumerates a general category of laws that Plaintiff is to uphold — traffic laws."

"This is still a vague and general declaration of public policy when considered in conjunction with other cases that have found clearly defined policy in statutes," Stovall wrote.

Iowa courts have extended job protections to workers who file for workers' compensation benefits, who report child abuse, or who report wrongdoing at private companies, among others. Otherwise, Iowa is an at-will employment state, which means workers can be fired for any reason.

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