APNewsbreak: Agent: Gov's speeding was safety risk

AP News
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Posted: Jul 03, 2013 3:34 PM
APNewsbreak: Agent: Gov's speeding was safety risk

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — One of Iowa's most senior criminal investigators was placed on leave in May days after he filed a complaint about seeing the governor's official vehicle racing past highway traffic at about 90 miles per hour, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

Special Agent in Charge Larry Hedlund, a 25-year veteran of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, wrote in his April 29 complaint to Commissioner Brian London that Gov. Terry Branstad shouldn't be "above the laws of the State of Iowa" and that his speeding SUV had put the public at risk.

The next day, Hedlund found himself under scrutiny, facing questions about why he was driving a state vehicle on the day he witnessed the speeding incident, which was a vacation day.

On April 26, Hedlund had been involved in a three-car pursuit involving a vehicle traveling at 90 miles per hour that turned out to be transporting the Republican governor and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. The driver, a state trooper assigned to the governor's security detail, was allowed to proceed without being stopped.

Hedlund wrote that the black Chevy Tahoe zipped past him when he was driving west on Highway 20 near Iowa Falls. He said he reported the vehicle speeding "at a dangerous and high rate of speed" to a dispatcher, who called a trooper for assistance.

Hedlund pursued the speeding vehicle for several miles, and told trooper Matthew Eimers he would act as his backup during the eventual stop. Eimers clocked the vehicle at 84 miles per hour, then sped past a school bus and several cars during the pursuit before catching up to the Chevy. He did not stop it after realizing it was a fellow trooper, Steve Lawrence, transporting Branstad and Reynolds.

Hedlund wrote that he understood why the trooper exercised his discretion in not stopping the vehicle, given the governor's influence. But Heldund, who oversees the DCI's work in northeastern Iowa, said that he would pursue an investigation as the highest-ranking officer involved to ensure "appropriate actions are taken." He said he would contact the prosecutors in the counties where the incident occurred.

"In addition to the well-known dangers of traveling at a high rate of speed, this incident further demonstrates how a situation like this can quickly put others at risk," Hedlund wrote. "In this case, a school bus possibly full of children. The consequences of three vehicles traveling at high speeds could have been tragic."

He added: "This department can't afford to ignore what apparently is a common practice that puts the general public in danger. Regardless of what dignitaries might be in the back seat of the speeding vehicle it is still against the law."

Hedlund's attorney, Tom Duff, gave the complaint to The Associated Press on Wednesday. The Department of Public Safety had refused to release a copy under the public records law Tuesday, saying it was a personnel record that could be kept confidential.

Duff said Hedlund wanted to release the complaint to make clear he was not trying to get the troopers in trouble. "The point was to alert his supervisors that the governor was going 90 and nobody is doing anything about it," he said.

Hedlund held the governor responsible for the incident, writing that Branstad had to be "aware the vehicle was speeding and was by proxy, the cause of the vehicle to be speeding." He said the trooper driving the governor is often told when the governor is behind schedule — "one of those 'read between the lines' communications with potentially very bad ramifications."

Branstad denied that Wednesday, telling reporters in Des Moines that he was unaware of the speeding incident at the time. He said that he never tells his drivers to speed and that he trusts their judgment while he's often working in the backseat.

"They are good drivers, they know what they're doing. I'm not going to be a backseat driver," he said.

In response to Hedlund's memo, DCI director Chari Paulson asked him to explain why he was driving his state vehicle on the day of the pursuit, which was a scheduled vacation day, according to an email released by Duff. Hedlund responded that he had sacrificed part of his day to drive to Cedar Rapids to meet with a retired homicide investigator to seek input about supervising a cold case unit, an assignment he had recently accepted.

The next day, Duff said Hedlund was stripped of his duties and told he was under investigation for insubordination and rules violations. Hedlund, 55, was interviewed last month as part of that review and hopes to clear his name. He had been supervising the DCI's investigation into the slaying of two cousins who were kidnapped while riding their bikes a year ago, among other cases.

Branstad said he would reserve judgment about whether Hedlund has been treated fairly, saying the department's investigation will determine his fate. Asked whether the trooper driving him should have been ticketed, he said that was a "judgment call" but noted it was also under review. He insisted he's not above the law.

"I believe that everybody ought to be treated equally and fairly under the law," he said. "I really have confidence that the Department of Public Safety is doing this in a very professional way and I have confidence they will do an independent review and determine the appropriate action."

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Associated Press writer Catherine Lucey in Des Moines contributed to this report.

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Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rjfoley