DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad on Thursday called the firing of a veteran criminal investigator “fair and just,” forcefully asserting that it had nothing to do with the agent’s complaint that touched off a firestorm over speeding by the governor’s vehicle.
Branstad repeatedly rejected what he called “false accusations” of retaliation against Larry Hedlund, during a news conference at the Capitol. The governor called on Hedlund and his attorney to allow the release of a 500-page investigative report into Hedlund’s conduct, saying that would tell the public the full story of his firing.
Hedlund was fired Wednesday by the Iowa Department of Public Safety after a 25-year career over what his superiors called unprofessional and discourteous behavior. A three-page termination document said Hedlund, a special agent in charge with the Division of Criminal Investigation, sent emails to subordinates making “negative and disrespectful comments” about the department’s leadership team and policies.
Hedlund was placed on administrative leave May 1, two days after he filed a complaint to his superiors about a high-speed pursuit involving Branstad’s state-assigned SUV. He and his attorney, Tom Duff, contend his firing was retaliation for filing that complaint and intend to file a lawsuit alleging wrongful termination.
Branstad said he was comfortable with the rationale for Hedlund’s firing after department officials briefed him Thursday morning.
“They felt for morale and for safety and the well-being of the department, this was action that was necessary,” he said. “I believe what they did was a fair and just decision.”
Hedlund, 55, initiated an April 26 pursuit of an SUV that zipped past him doing roughly 90 mph on Highway 20 in northern Iowa. He pursued the vehicle and asked dispatchers to send a trooper to make a stop. A trooper clocked the SUV at 84 mph and raced to catch up, but ultimately didn’t stop the vehicle after seeing it was another trooper who was driving Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Responding to the Republican governor’s remarks, Duff said he and his client have not been given the 500-page investigative report. He said he would consider releasing it if state officials let him review the document first.
“If there’s some suggestion that we’re trying to hide the ball, nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
Amid criticism that he appeared to live by a special set of rules on the road, Branstad also announced steps to address other issues that Hedlund’s speeding complaint raised.
Branstad said he had met with the supervisor of the Iowa State Patrol unit that provides his transportation and security, telling him to instruct troopers to follow speed limits and traffic laws except in emergencies. He said that a review of the trooper who was driving him during the pursuit should be concluded by next week.
Branstad also ordered the Iowa Department of Transportation to review a state policy that allows his and other government vehicles involved in undercover or sensitive work to receive license plates that are kept out of computerized databases. The designation is meant for security purposes but also means cities with red light and speed cameras do not issue them tickets.
Branstad said it was unacceptable that 3,200 government vehicles have the designation, a fact revealed by The Associated Press earlier this week.
“Nobody is above the law,” he said. “We public servants need to lead by example.”
The executive director of Progress Iowa, a liberal group that has been lambasting Branstad’s handling of the case, said he was disappointed that Branstad did not take responsibility for the speeding. The group has been handing out yellow “Branstad on Board” bumper stickers to supporters — a spoof of the popular “Baby on Board” stickers — that read: “Speed limits do not apply.”
“There’s still no answer to what’s going to be done to hold himself or others in the administration accountable,” Matt Sinovic said. “Today was just about getting political heat off the governor.”