IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A veteran Iowa criminal investigator said he was fired Wednesday in retaliation for complaining about the governor's vehicle speeding through highway traffic, an assertion state officials rejected.
Special Agent in Charge Larry Hedlund of the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation learned of his termination during a meeting in Des Moines, following a 2 ½ -month personnel investigation launched days after he filed an April 29 complaint about Gov. Terry Branstad's SUV traveling 90 mph.
Hedlund said his firing after a 25-year law enforcement career was devastating, and that he would "take to my grave" a belief that it was done because of his complaint. His attorney, Tom Duff, vowed to file a lawsuit alleging wrongful termination.
"This firing is a real loss for the people of the state of Iowa," Duff said of Hedlund, who received a top honor for assisting crime victims in 2008. "If your child turned up missing or your family member was the victim of a crime, you would want Larry on the case."
State officials denied retaliation. A termination document said that Hedlund made "negative and disrespectful" comments in emails about DCI Director Chari Paulson, addressed her disrespectfully during a conference call, and drove his vehicle on a vacation day. It noted he had no prior discipline.
"After careful consideration, it is apparent that your employment with the Iowa Department of Public Safety has been counterproductive to the best interests of the Department," the document states. "Your actions and deportment represent behavior that is unacceptable and warrants discharge."
Hedlund, 55, initiated an April 26 pursuit of an SUV that zipped past him doing "a hard 90" mph on Highway 20 in northern Iowa. He pursued the vehicle and asked dispatchers to send a trooper to make a stop. A trooper clocked the SUV at 84 mph and raced to catch up, but ultimately didn't stop the vehicle after seeing it was another trooper who was driving Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Hedlund complained to superiors that the high-speed pursuit endangered safety, noting the vehicles had driven past a school bus. He said he believed speeding by the governor's driver was common because of pressure to meet his schedule, and Branstad shouldn't be above the law.
Paulson responded by asking Hedlund why he was driving his state car during the pursuit on a vacation day. Hedlund was placed on leave two days later pending a review of misconduct allegations.
Hedlund said he sacrificed his vacation day to meet with a retired investigator in Cedar Rapids, and was passed by the governor's SUV on his drive home.
The termination document quotes emails in which Hedlund criticized Paulson over her plan to require investigators to type reports, a duty that had been performed by civilians. He wrote that the change would "go backwards about 20 years" and showed "a glaring and fundamental lack of understanding and appreciation" of agents.
Hedlund said that he was expecting superiors to order him to stop the criticism. But he said "everything changed" after his Branstad complaint, and he suddenly faced misconduct allegations over incidents they'd never mentioned.
"I make this complaint involving the governor and now they are going to nickel and dime me about hours and my work ethic," he said.
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said the governor's office played no role in Hedlund's termination.
The Iowa Department of Public Safety, headed by a Branstad appointee, Commissioner Brian London, said only the action against Hedlund was unrelated to his complaint. The department is conducting a separate review of the two troopers involved in the pursuit.
Attorney Duff said he will file a lawsuit alleging Hedlund's termination violated public policy and seeking compensation for lost wages, benefits and emotional pain.
Based in Fort Dodge, Hedlund supervised DCI's work in northeastern Iowa, overseeing eight agents and several high-profile investigations, including the search for whoever killed two cousins who vanished while riding bikes last year. He said he worked almost around the clock on that case at times.
The speeding incident has turned into a political headache for Branstad, a Republican.
Branstad said initially he was unaware of his vehicle's speed since he's usually working in the backseat. He later said 84 mph was too fast, and his administration is reviewing scheduling so it doesn't happen again. Debi Durham, the state's economic development chief, later drew criticism for jokingly tweeting about the lack of speed limit on the Autobahn when Branstad was in Germany.
A liberal group, Progress Iowa, has started distributing "Branstad on Board" bumper stickers, a spoof on the iconic "Baby on Board" stickers. "Speed limits do not apply," they read.
The group's executive director, Matt Sinovic, said that he was stunned by Hedlund's firing.
"He saw somebody breaking the law and tried to do something about it," he said, "and it appears that he's getting punished for that."