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Attorneys Say Disclosing Personnel Records of Fired Public Workers Depends on What's Inside

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa- Iowa Governor Terry Branstad's challenge to a fired D-C-I employee is a tactic that has wrongful termination lawyers in eastern Iowa shaking their heads.

Branstad challenged former Special Agent in Charge Larry Hedlund to release a 500-page investigative report describing what led up to the termination. Hedlund has publicly said he was suspended and then fired for complaining when troopers did not stop a speed SUV containing the governor and lieutenant governor.

In a news conference on Thursday, the governor called on the former special agent and his lawyer to allow the state to release the report saying "instead of making false accusations and only giving people a portion of the facts let's let the public see all the facts."

Personnel records, even for public employees like Hedlund, are not a public record in Iowa. In fact, Iowa Code would prevent any release except with permission of the employee.

But Bill Roemerman, a Cedar Rapids attorney who's represented public workers in job disputes, said he's never quite seen a tactic of "calling out" a dismissed worker like what the governor did Thursday.

"It's unusual in the extreme for the head of the government unit to speak about a pending personnel matter," Roemerman said.

Roemerman, who's represented law officers in job disputes numerous times, said the information alluded to by the governor will certainly come out if the case goes to court. For municipal workers, under civil service rules, information usually is public as well although the disciplined worker had request a closed hearing.

Roemerman said if he were giving advice to Hedlund's lawyer about releasing the report, it would be based on what that report contained.

"If after reading that report I intended to go ahead and file a wrongful termination action in court, then I'd bring the report out now because it will come out sooner or later so it's just as well to get it on the table. If, on the other hand, after reading it I think, no, then I'd probably walk away with that report in my hip pocket," Roemerman said.

Cedar Rapids state senator Rob Hogg, who's also an attorney, said Iowa Code allows most details in a public employee's personnel file to stay private for good reasons.

Hogg said "you look at a case like this and say, yeah, we'd like to learn more. But the problem is if you have a rule that says personnel records can be disclosed publicly it hurts both the worker and supervisor...workers have lots of issues they need to be able to talk to employers about. What if they've had health problems, what if they've had personal problems in the family they need to talk about. They (employers & employees) need to have some freedom to be able to have those conversations privately."

Attorney Roemerman said another way information might get disclosed in the Hedlund case is if there's a contested claim of unemployment that goes to a hearing. The hearing itself may not be public, but the decision would be. But Roemerman added if there's any reason to contest the firing at all, the more likely result is a wrongful termination suit against the state that ends up in court.

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