Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Christopher J. Godfrey will resign to take a federal position, but will continue pursuing a lawsuit alleging Gov. Terry Branstad and aides illegally bullied him, he said.
Godfrey has accepted an appointment as chairman and chief judge of the Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board in Washington, which decides workers’ compensation claims filed by federal workers. He submitted a resignation letter to Branstad’s office on Aug. 4, saying he was proud that he fought off “unwarranted influence, intimidation and retaliation.”
Godfrey is leaving his job, in which he decides appeals about whether businesses and insurers must compensate injured workers, with “very conflicted” emotions, he told The Associated Press.
“It’s a great opportunity to go to the next level of being a judge. There’s a lot of excitement,” he said. “There is also a heavy heart in terms of leaving the agency here, just under the circumstances that have developed over the last three years.”
Godfrey was appointed by Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack in 2006, reappointed by Democratic Gov. Chet Culver in 2009 and confirmed by the Iowa Senate to a six-year term. After Branstad defeated Culver in the 2010 election, the Republican governor-elect requested Godfrey’s resignation.
Godfrey declined, arguing that he was supposed to have independence in the judge-like position and that his term didn’t expire until 2015. Godfrey alleges that Branstad’s chief of staff, Jeff Boeyink, and legal counsel, Brenna Findley, threatened to slash his salary if he stayed. The governor cut Godfrey’s pay from $112,000 to $73,000, the lowest allowed. Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and aides defended the action by painting Godfrey as a poor commissioner who was hurting business. Godfrey says that isn’t true, pointing to Iowa’s stable workers’ compensation climate.
Godfrey, who is gay, is suing for discrimination based on his sexual orientation, defamation, extortion and other claims. Branstad’s seeking an unprecedented sixth term, and Democrats argue the case is an example of the governor acting above the law.
The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in June that Branstad and other defendants could be held personally liable if a jury decides that their treatment of Godfrey broke the law. A judge said last week that the case will be tried within the year. The state has spent $525,000 to pay lawyers to defend the administration.
Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, called on Branstad to admit that his “vindictive campaign” against Godfrey was a mistake.
“Iowa’s loss of Chris Godfrey is a victory for federal workers who are injured on the job and deserve a fair hearing,” he said.
Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers declined to comment.
Godfrey said he was proud to have cut the time it takes for parties to receive initial decisions, reduced a backlog of appeals and developed an online filing and case management system that’s awaiting implementation. But he said his “most significant legacy” would be the efforts taken to protect his office from political influence.
“When I accepted my initial oath as commissioner in 2006, I knew the agency would face political obstacles,” he wrote. “Yet, I never imagined I would face personal attacks that would threaten the independence of the office, as well as the integrity and legitimacy of the entire workers’ compensation system.”
He said he took “every step in my power to protect our great state’s system from unwarranted influence, intimidation and retaliation. There is still much work to be done on this front, and I fully intend to see it through until the end, not only for my family and me, but for all Iowans who respect the rule of law.”
He said that he believed the lawsuit had already strengthened the office for future commissioners, adding: “I am also proud to leave this office on my own terms.”