DES MOINES, Iowa — Gov. Terry Branstad on Thursday called the firing of a veteran criminal investigator "fair and just," asserting that it had nothing to do with the agent's complaint about speeding by the governor's vehicle.
Branstad rejected what he called "false accusations" that his administration retaliated against Larry Hedlund. The governor called on Hedlund to allow the release of a 500-page investigative report into his conduct, saying that would tell the public the full story.
Hedlund was fired Wednesday by the Iowa Department of Public Safety after a 25-year career over what it called discourteous behavior. A 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 department leaders and policies.
Hedlund was placed on leave May 1, days after he filed a complaint to superiors about a high-speed pursuit involving Branstad's SUV. Hedlund contends his firing was retaliation for filing that complaint and intends to file a lawsuit alleging wrongful termination.
Branstad said he was comfortable with Hedlund's firing after department officials briefed him Thursday. He said the problems with Hedlund started before the speeding incident, and department officials didn't think lesser disciplinary action would solve them.
"They felt for morale and for safety and the well-being of the department, this was action that was necessary," Branstad said at a news conference. "I believe what they did was a fair and just decision."
Hedlund, 55, initiated the pursuit after an SUV that zipped past him April 26 doing "a hard 90" mph on Highway 20, a major four-lane highway that runs east-west across the state and has a 65 mph limit. He asked dispatchers to send a trooper to make a stop. A trooper clocked the SUV at 84 mph and raced to catch up, but didn't stop the vehicle after seeing it was another trooper who was driving Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Hedlund sent DCI Director Chari Paulson an email April 29 complaining that the pursuit endangered public safety and that the governor shouldn't be above the law. She responded by asking Hedlund why he was driving his vehicle on a scheduled vacation day. Within days, he was removed from duty and facing misconduct allegations.
The department launched a review of the two troopers involved in the pursuit only after audio and video of the incident was made public this month. Branstad said that review should be completed next week.
Hedlund's attorney, Tom Duff, said that he and his client have not been given the full investigative report, which he will release as long as he can review the document first. State rules treat personnel documents as confidential.
"If there's some suggestion that we're trying to hide the ball, nothing could be further from the truth," Duff said.
He said it will be up to a jury to decide whether the firing was retaliation against Hedlund, who had no prior discipline.
Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield, a retired trooper who chairs the Public Safety committee, said it was unfortunate that Hedlund's complaint put two troopers under scrutiny. Asked whether he supported Hedlund's firing, he said, "If you have a cancer, you cut it out."
"I bleed brown so I'm a little prejudiced," Baudler said, referring to troopers' uniforms.
Amid criticism that he lived by a special set of rules on the road, Branstad announced steps to address other issues the case raised.
Branstad said he met with the leader of the Iowa State Patrol unit that provides his transportation and security, telling him to instruct troopers to always follow speed limits except in emergency situations.
Branstad ordered the Iowa Department of Transportation to review a policy that allows government vehicles involved in sensitive work to receive license plates that are kept out of computerized databases. The designation is meant for security but also means cities with red light and speed cameras do not issue them tickets.
Branstad said it was unacceptable that 3,200 plates have been issued with that designation, a fact revealed by The Associated Press this week, and the review should reduce that number.
"Nobody is above the law," he said. "We public servants need to lead by example."
Branstad said his own vehicle's plates — which could not be identified by troopers who pursued it — would be part of the review. When Branstad was governor from 1982 to 1998, he noted his car was easily identifiable, with the plate, "1."
The executive director of Progress Iowa, a liberal group that has been lambasting Branstad over the case, said he was disappointed that Branstad didn't take personal responsibility for speeding. The group has been handing out yellow "Branstad on Board" bumper stickers — a spoof of "Baby on Board" stickers — that read: "Speed limits do not apply."
"Today was just about getting political heat off the governor," Matt Sinovic said.