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Jury Decides Former Gov. Terry Branstad Discriminated Against Gay Employee, Awards $1.5 Million

Des Moines Register pool photo
Former Iowa governor and current ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, gives testimony at the Polk County Courthouse in Des Moines on June 14.

A Polk County jury decided Monday former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad discriminated against a gay state official and awarded the former employee $1.5 million.

After seven years of litigation and a six-week trial, the jury decided Branstad engaged in discrimination and retaliation when he cut former Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey’s pay by about a third after Godfrey refused to resign in 2011.

Godfrey’s attorney, Roxanne Conlin, said she hopes the state of Iowa will be more careful about how it treats members of the LGBTQ community.

“It’s important, indeed critical, that every employee of the state of Iowa be treated fairly, that they be treated like a full human being,” Conlin said. “That did not happen to Chris Godfrey.”

Branstad, who is now U.S. Ambassador to China, returned to Des Moines in June to testify. He said he wanted Godfrey to resign because the business community complained about workers’ compensation decisions under Godfrey, not because he’s gay.

Gov. Kim Reynolds was Branstad’s lieutenant governor. She was originally named in the lawsuit, but Godfrey dismissed her from the lawsuit before the trial began.

“We are disappointed in the verdict and are consulting with our attorneys,” governor’s office spokesman Pat Garrett said Monday.

The state spent more than $1.3 million on private defense lawyers in this case as of March 3, and that number is expected to rise.

Conlin said this was not about putting Republican politicians’ views on gay rights on trial, as some critics have claimed.

“This was about the way that the governor of the state of Iowa treated a very extraordinarily great workers’ compensation commissioner, and the jury held that the reason he was treated like that is because he’s gay,” Conlin said. “We all agree that’s wrong.”

Two Democratic governors appointed Godfrey to the position that has a six-year term. When Branstad, a Republican, took office, he asked Godfrey to resign. When Godfrey stayed, Branstad cut Godfrey’s pay by about a third so it was the smallest amount allowed by Iowa law. Godfrey eventually left the state.

Conlin said it’s not clear if the $1.5 million awarded by the jury will be the final amount paid out by the state.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter