When Fred Rogers of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” said, “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility,” he could have been talking about Iowa state government.
Unfortunately, it’s in a bad way.
When someone behaves badly in the state of Iowa Neighborhood, taxpayers are solely responsible for the bill.
We may be out another $6 million after a Polk County jury last week found then-Gov. Terry Branstad tried to force out Chris Godfrey, who was state workers compensation commissioner, because he was gay.
Not so, said Branstad, who sought Godfrey’s resignation in 2011 before his six-year term ended, then cut his $112,070 pay by $39,000. Branstad contended he wanted to banish all Democrats when his new administration took office, claiming they wouldn’t support his plan for Iowa.
The jury disagreed, awarding Godfrey $1.5 million. The state is weighing an appeal.
The bill increases to $6 million, according to the Des Moines Register, with attorney’s fees — $2.6 million for Godfrey’s lawyers and $2 million for Branstad’s private defense. Because Godfrey had consulted with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, Branstad wanted outside counsel. Greg Nevins, of Lambda Legal, a gay and transgender rights group, told the Register the award may be the largest nationally in a civil rights case involving sexual orientation.
But it wasn’t unprecedented in Iowa.
The University of Iowa Department of Athletics — but taxpayers indirectly — paid $6.5 million, including attorney’s fees, for gender and sexual orientation discrimination in 2017.
A jury awarded Jane Meyer, the former senior associate athletics director, $2.3 million. She was reassigned from her $173,000 job to another department a day after seeking a discussion with Athletics Director Gary Barta about the mistreatment of women.
Mayer was particularly upset because her partner, former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum, was fired following players’ complaints of abusive behavior. A university investigation found no policy violations.
Griesbaum settled her case against the athletics department for $1.5 million.
Attorneys for the women got $2.7 million.
Taxpayers are on the hook for $7.5 million since 2017 in four sexual harassment lawsuits.
Kirsten Anderson, former Iowa Senate Republican communications director, got $1.08 million and her attorneys $705,000 to settle a sexual harassment suit in September 2017. She was fired hours after filing a 2013 complaint alleging the Senate GOP Caucus was a “boys’ club” with rampant sexual harassment.
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She maintained Jim Friedrich, a government oversight analyst, teased female coworkers about their sex lives, called them “prudes” if his taunts were ignored, issued “hot chick reports,” implored staffers to gawk at women outside his window and frequently used the “c-word.”
Then there was the $4.1 million to two Iowa Finance Authority employees. The IFA assists with various housing needs.
Beth Mahaffey, former IFA business development director, got $2.3 million, and Ashley Jared, its communications director, $1.8 million, in February because of rampant bad behavior by director Dave Jamison.
The long list of lewd actions included grabbing a female employee’s breasts and showing pornographic videos, then looking at his crotch and asking, “Can you tell when I’m excited?”
When cautioned by a male colleague, Jamison countered, “You must be allergic to a paycheck.” He discouraged others from complaining, touting his friendship with Gov. Kim Reynolds, another former county treasurer. Reynolds subsequently fired Jamison. She called him a family friend and a heavy-drinking partier with an odd sense of humor, but she denied knowledge of his misconduct. Jamison also was incompetent. An audit showed he misspent $549,399.
The state paid $2.3 million in March to former Fort Madison prison guard Kristine Sink, who got $1.6 million before attorneys’ fees.
Sink said corrections officials sexually harassed and discriminated against her and wouldn’t make accommodations to would avoid contact with inmates.
Prisoners threatened her because she occasionally turned off R-rated movies — “violent rape, gang rape, dehumanization of women, sexual acts between human beings and animals” — which supervisors allowed them to watch.
She sought a change in work environment because of stress and anxiety around inmates. After working in a prison control room, she was reassigned in October 2014 to supervise 73 inmates alone.
State Auditor Rob Sand put the payments in proper perspective while objecting to the Jamison settlements.
“The question to me is what are we actually going to do to stop sexual harassment in Iowa government rather than just write checks,” he said, adding, “If harassers aren’t paying for their actions, neither should taxpayers.”
Exactly. Sensitivity training is hardly the ultimate deterrent.
These lawsuits always will target the deeper pockets of taxpayers, but those who discriminate and harass should become wary of paying for their actions.
With apologies to Mister Rogers, the cost of bad behavior should be a shared responsibility. Offenders must be made to bear some costs for their abhorrent behavior.