Judge Again Blocks Branstad’s Deposition in Agent’s Firing


FILE – In this June 28, 2017, file photo, U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad makes comments about pro-democracy activist and Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo during a photocall and remarks to journalists at the Ambassador’s residence in Beijing. Branstad appears to be leaving his post, based on tweets by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Pompeo thanked Branstad for more than three years of service on Twitter on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — For a second time, a judge has ruled that former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad does not have to testify in a long-running lawsuit brought by an investigator who was fired in 2013 shortly after filing a complaint about Branstad’s state vehicle speeding.

Lawyers for former Division of Criminal Investigation special agent Larry Hedlund wanted to depose Branstad as they prepare for an August trial in Hedlund’s case, which alleges that he was wrongly discharged for blowing the whistle on the governor’s routine speeding and other agency misconduct.

They wanted to question Branstad about a 2013 speeding incident reported by Hedlund in which a trooper driving Branstad and then-Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds was clocked at 84 mph in a 65-mph zone but was let go without a ticket. In addition, they wanted to ask about meetings Branstad had with Hedlund’s superiors at the Iowa Department of Public Safety and Branstad’s comment at a news conference that Hedlund was fired “for the morale and for the safety and well-being” of the department.

Lawyers at the Iowa Attorney General’s Office moved to block Branstad’s deposition, citing the “high-ranking official privilege” that protects government employees from facing burdensome legal proceedings.

Judge Paul Scott, who was appointed to the bench by Branstad in 2014, agreed in a ruling earlier this month, quashing a subpoena that had been sent to Branstad summoning him to appear for the deposition.

Another judge appointed by Branstad had blocked a deposition request on similar grounds in 2017, as Branstad was preparing to become then-President Donald Trump’s U.S. ambassador to China. Branstad praised that ruling at the time, saying that a 3-hour deposition “would be really a waste of my time.”

Hedlund’s lawyers renewed their request to depose Branstad in January after he had stepped down as ambassador and retired from government, arguing he had first-hand knowledge of the state’s treatment of Hedlund and the burden on him would be low.

In his ruling, Scott found that the deposition “has minimal relevance and is not necessary for” Hedlund’s case. He noted that then-DCI director Charis Paulson has taken responsibility for the decision to fire Hedlund, that four other witnesses have testified about a meeting in which they discussed Hedlund’s firing and that Branstad has said he doesn’t have any memory of those conversations.

“Branstad likely has little information to add to Plaintiff’s case, let alone relevant information that Plaintiff could not obtain from another source,” Scott wrote.

Scott noted that the privilege can apply to retired officials and found that Branstad had a “significant interest in not being inundated with depositions.”

A third judge appointed by Branstad dismissed Hedlund’s case in 2018, shortly before a scheduled trial. But the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that this was done in error and sent the case back for further proceedings.

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