IOWA CITY (AP) — Lost in the controversy over an Iowa investigator's firing is a little-known law that has allowed him to keep his pay and benefits since being terminated in July.
The law requires the Department of Public Safety to continue paying terminated supervisors while they appeal their firings administratively, which can take a year or longer. That means former Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Larry Hedlund still receives his $96,500 annual salary even as some lawmakers demand his reinstatement, saying he was unfairly punished for reporting Gov. Terry Branstad's speeding SUV and other mismanagement.
An Iowa State Patrol sergeant has earned his $83,500 salary since his June termination, and a third fired employee collected nearly $90,000 during an unsuccessful 14-month appeal that ended in 2010, according to a review by The Associated Press. Iowans are paying tens of thousands of dollars to idled employees who say they'd rather be investigating crime or patrolling highways.
Hedlund has filed a lawsuit alleging he was wrongly terminated after initiating a pursuit of Branstad's vehicle and filing complaints about that incident and other misconduct. State officials contend that Hedlund, a 25-year veteran with no prior discipline, was fired because of disrespectful behavior and that Branstad wasn't involved.
The pay law is so obscure that department officials were apparently unaware of it in the cases of Hedlund and Sgt. Kevin Knebel, who say their pay was initially cut off after they were fired. To their shock, department officials later notified them they were mistaken and restored their pay after discovering the law's requirement.
Hedlund said he'd already applied for his pension and was looking to get on his wife's health insurance.
"A week and a half later, they say, 'you're terminated but you're still on the payroll,'" Hedlund said. "It's the first thing that's happened to me since April that has been fair or in my favor. I know some people are going to take it wrong, that some guy got fired and is still getting paid. My own aunt said, 'that's why my taxes are so high.'"
But Hedlund said he'd much rather be paid to supervise agents in northern Iowa "than sitting here trying to re-establish my credibility."
Records show that one other supervisor in recent years collected a salary for 14 months after he was fired: Patrol Sgt. Rodney Hicok, who was suspended for sending a mass email showing black criminal suspects wearing Barack Obama shirts and then fired in May 2009 for sharing other offensive jokes.
Hicok kept his pay until July 2010, when the Employment Appeal Board upheld his termination, said his attorney, Pamela Walker. She argued that Hicok's firing was influenced by politics because lawmakers expressed outrage over the anti-Obama email. She said it was appropriate he was paid until receiving a fair hearing.
The law dates to 1988, when lawmakers specified that DPS supervisors couldn't lose pay for a termination or suspension until the appeal board issued a decision, according to the State Law Library. Rank-and-file troopers and agents lose their pay immediately when terminated but have union representation if they appeal through arbitration, which can result in reinstatement with back pay.
The process for a terminated supervisor's appeal has several steps. An administrative law judge holds a hearing to gather testimony, and typically issues a decision within 30 days. Employees can appeal that ruling to the three-member Employment Appeal Board. If the board upholds the firing, their paychecks are cut off.
"God, that could take a while," said Knebel, an assistant post commander in Mason City who hasn't worked since Jan. 28, when he was placed on paid leave. "I thought when I got terminated I was done. But it was a relief to know that I'm still getting paid. I'd rather be working for my money, but I have no control over that."
Knebel contends he was terminated after a 20-year patrol career after being falsely accused of lying about a night off, and is seeking reinstatement as he works part-time jobs at a fitness center and grocery store. His state pay won't stop soon. His appeal hearing was scheduled for Friday but has been delayed until Dec. 18, after attorneys said they had scheduling conflicts.
Hedlund's attorney, Tom Duff, said he appealed the firing administratively only because it may be a legal requirement to pursue the wrongful termination lawsuit. Hedlund will likely drop the administrative appeal — which will end his pay — if a judge finds that step isn't necessary.
"If that happens, I'll go on the pension," Hedlund said. "I'm not looking for a free ride from the state on anything."
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