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Iowa trial begins over alleged discrimination by ex-governor

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Jury selection began Monday in what is expected to be a monthlong civil trial over allegations that former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad pressured an official to quit because he was gay, a case Branstad's attorney predicts will escalate into an "unhinged attack on the Republican Party."

Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey, a Democrat, sued Branstad for discrimination in 2012, shortly after he was elected to the first of his two most recent terms as governor. Godfrey, who couldn't be fired under a provision in Iowa law intending his six-year term to be insulated from politics, alleged Branstad pressured him to resign by cutting more than a third of his salary.

Branstad, now the U.S. ambassador to China living in Beijing, has agreed to return to Iowa testify on June 14 only, and attorneys in the case have said they won't call him back to the witness stand. A Polk County jury will be asked to decide whether Branstad's treatment of Godfrey was a legitimate exercise of the chief executive's power or discrimination based on sexual orientation, political party affiliation or both.

Branstad's attorney, Frank Harty, in an appeal earlier this month to the Iowa Supreme Court to dismiss the case declared, "Frankly, the upcoming month-long trial will be nothing short of a national spectacle."

Roxanne Conlin, who is representing Godfrey, said she will submit to the jury a "virulently anti-gay" Republic Party platform of 2010 when Branstad was the head of the party, which included planks opposing same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples.

She said Godfrey's pay cut must be viewed in light of the political upheaval in Iowa at the time involving gay rights. After Branstand slashed his pay, he received $73,250 — the lowest allowed by law for the job.

In 2009 the Iowa Supreme Court overturned a 1998 state law signed by Branstad that declared marriage legal only between a man and a woman. The court ruling made Iowa the third state in the nation to allow same-sex marriages. In November 2010, conservative Christian groups successfully rallied to defeat three justices that had voted to allow gay marriage and were up for retention votes forcing them off the bench.

In that same election Branstad was elected to return to state government after having retired as governor in 1999 and going to work in the private sector. Conlin said the jury must decide whether Branstad's official version of events regarding employment actions taken against Godfrey "rings true" or there were other motivations.

Harty will try to convince the jury that Branstad didn't know Godfrey was gay. "He only knew that Godfrey was not part of his team and was unpopular with the business interests who helped return Branstad to office," Harty wrote.

He criticized Godfrey for refusing to accept that voters chose Branstad to return as head of state government defeating Chet Culver, a one-term Democrat who had reappointed Godfrey. "Godfrey was not the victim of unlawful conduct; he was simply a casualty of the ballot box," Harty said.

For Conlin the case at its center is about individual rights. "This case tells a story we know well — that the fight for civil rights is uneven and often best seen in hindsight," she wrote in a court filing.

Culver and Tom Vilsack, the Democratic governor who first appointed Godfrey, also are expected to testify, along with a host of former state employees, lawmakers and executives from the business community who lobbied Branstad to get rid of Godfrey.

Godfrey is now the chief judge of the board that decides federal workers' compensation disputes in Washington.

Follow David Pitt on Twitter: https://twitter.com/davepitt

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