DES MOINES (AP) — An outside law firm hired to defend Gov. Terry Branstad against a discrimination lawsuit has been paid $370,559 in state taxpayer money, with no end in sight for the case, according to records.
The state hired Des Moines attorney George A. LaMarca last year, after Iowa Workers Compensation Commissioner Christopher Godfrey filed a lawsuit accusing Branstad and top staffers of discriminating against him because he's gay. Godfrey charges that the governor cut his salary by nearly $40,000 after he declined to resign.
State records show that LaMarca's firm has been paid $370,559 since February 2012. His $325 hourly rate was approved by a panel of state officials called the Executive Council.
Such a case could be handled by the State Attorney General's Office, but because there was a possibility that a staffer in that office could be called as a witness, Branstad requested outside counsel. The Attorney General's Office agreed to recommend hiring LaMarca given the personal allegations against the governor, according to a letter the office sent to the Executive Council.
LaMarca said the fees were on the low end of his rate scale. He said the case merits taxpayer money because he's defending the rights of Branstad and future governors.
“This is a case with a lot of potential implications for state government and for the taxpayers. We're making sure that every future governor can exercise the rights granted to him or her by the Iowa Constitution without being sued,” LaMarca said.
Godfrey's attorney, Roxanne Conlin, didn't return calls for comment. Godfrey said it wasn't his place to comment on the outside attorney fees.
“It's for the Executive Council of Iowa to decide,” he said. He called the case a “difficult situation for me and my family.”
Godfrey, who oversees disputes between injured workers and their employers in Iowa, sued in January 2012. The suit is on hold in Polk County District Court until the Iowa Supreme Court rules on whether state officials have immunity against defamation.
Godfrey has been commissioner since 2006, first appointed by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack and reappointed by former Gov. Chet Culver, also a Democrat. His term expires in April 2015. But he says Branstad, a Republican, tried to force him out of his job and then illegally cut his salary from about $112,000 to $73,000 after Godfrey refused requests to quit.
Godfrey also charges that he was singled out and treated unfairly because he is gay. Godfrey says the Legislature established six-year terms for the commissioner to insulate the position from partisan politics. Since governors serve four-year terms, the commissioner appointed by a previous governor would have two years remaining to serve.
LaMarca said the governor has the right to ask commissioners to step down, as well as reduce their pay within a set salary range. He said Branstad was not aware of Godfrey's sexual orientation at the time.
State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald said the rate paid to LaMarca was more than the standard $80 per hour paid to outside counsel, though he noted that the council does approve higher rates for some cases.
“That's a whopper, isn't it?” said Fitzgerald of the sum paid to LaMarca so far. “That's huge. We could go well over half a million.”