Gov. Terry Branstad illegally discriminated against the former Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Christopher Godfrey when he slashed Godfrey’s salary in 2011 in an attempt to force Godfrey to resign, a Polk County jury decided on Monday. The jury agreed with Godfrey that Branstad had singled him out because Godfrey is gay, and awarded him $1.5 million in damages.
Branstad testified in the case that Godfrey’s sexual orientation was not a factor. Instead, Branstad said under oath last month that he was just doing the bidding of Iowa business groups when he attempted to pressure the commissioner into quitting.
“We’d gotten a tremendous amount of concern expressed by the big organizations like the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa Motor Truck Association and individual employers from around the state,” Branstad said when asked why he wanted remove Godfrey.
In his testimony, Branstad conceded that he had only spoken to Godfrey once, never conducted a review of Godfrey’s performance in office and had no idea how many workers’ compensation cases Godfrey’s office had handled. Branstad said he was also unaware that the amount of workers’ compensation fees charged to businesses had declined while Godfrey was commissioner.
Branstad acknowledged that as governor, he did not have the authority to remove the commissioner, so he took other actions instead. Branstad cut Godfrey’s salary from $112,068 to $73,250 (the lowest salary allowed by state law), drastically reduced the budget for Godfrey’s office and even eliminated the job of one of the commissioner’s assistants.
Godfrey was one of three state officials serving a fixed term who declined to resign when Branstad took office as governor in 2011. The other officials were not subjected to the treatment Godfrey was.
Branstad, who returned to Iowa last month from China — where he is currently serving as the U.S. ambassador — to testify in the case, said he does not engage in discrimination against gay people.
“I’ve never had any objection to protecting people … that are gay … from being mistreated or discriminated against because of their sexual preference,” he testified.
Godfrey’s attorney, Paige Fielder, pointed out that the 2010 Iowa Republican Party Platform called for the elimination of a 2007 law protecting LGBTQ Iowans from discrimination. Branstad, who led the state GOP from the 1980s until he left for China in 2017, said he “didn’t know” that.
Fielder also played a recording of Branstad reacting to the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2009 Varnum decision that legalized same-sex marriage in the state. “I believe it needs to be overturned with a constitutional amendment,” Branstad said in the recording.
Despite the pressure from Branstad, Godfrey continued to serve in his office until 2014, when he moved to Washington D.C. after being appointed chief judge of the U.S. Employees’ Compensation Appeal Board.
Godfrey was first appointed as commissioner of the Iowa Division of Workers’ Compensation by Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2006 and was reappointed by Gov. Chet Culver in 2009. He was unanimously approved by the Iowa Senate both times. Among those who voted to confirm Godfrey’s appointment was then-Sen. Kim Reynolds.
But in 2011, two years after voting to confirm Godfrey, then-Lt. Gov. Reynolds defended Branstad’s slashing of Godfrey’s salary and office budget.
“The governor and the administration feel that our objective is not being met by the current leadership and it’s important for us to have the correct leadership in place to meet the objectives that we have set,” Reynolds said during a press conference.
On Monday, a spokesperson for now-Gov. Reynolds said, “We are disappointed in the verdict and are consulting with our attorneys.”
Godfrey told the Gazette on Monday that he was “excited that justice finally came in.”
“It’s a huge weight [gone] for me and my family and for other gay people in Iowa,” Godfrey said. “This is a day we can all be very, very happy about.”
Godfrey first filed his lawsuit six years ago, when Branstad was still governor. He sued Reynolds, in her role as lieutenant governor, as well as Branstad and other administration officials. The administration even appealed the case to the Iowa Supreme Court twice, before the trial was able to begin in June.
In the second appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, the court ruled 4-3 that an Iowa citizen can sue state government officials for monetary damages, if those officials have violated the constitutional rights of the citizen. It’s not certain the court would now reach the same decision.
Since that ruling, one of the four justices who made up majority, Daryl Hecht, resigned for health reasons, and was replaced by Christopher McDonald, a Reynolds appointee. On Friday, Gov. Reynolds boasted that she was making Iowa’s courts more conservative with her appointments.
“In just two short years, we’ve moved the needle from left to right,” Reynolds said during a speech to The Family Leader, a right-wing Christian organization, based in Urbandale.