April 18, 2015

Erasing court records of those wrongly accused

State Capitol

State Capitol

The Iowa legislature has voted to make it easier for those wrongly accused of crimes in Iowa to get their records cleared. Representative Mary Wolfe, a Democrat from Clinton, says people would be surprised how many Iowans are going to be affected.

“Probably every day in Iowa somebody is mistakenly accused of a crime that they didn’t commit and after going through the system, sometimes spending thousands of dollars on attorneys, they’re eventually either found not guilty or the charges are dismissed,” Wolfe says. “And under current law, that case file — all the information in it, all the untrue allegations — stays on their record forever.”

The bill sets up a process for those wrongly accused of a crime to have the court records “expunged” — a legal term that means erased. Representative Sharon Steckman, a Democrat from Mason City, says this will help a woman in her area who was charged with a drug crime, but police soon determined it was a case of “totally mistaken identity” and they were looking for someone else.

“Well, then, you’d think it would be over, but for her it was not over,” Steckman says. “She has a degree as a medical assistant…she goes to apply for a job and the first thing they see on her records is that she was charged with dealing in meth…She can’t get a job anywhere because of the fact she can’t get it taken off Iowa Courts Online.”

Representative Chris Hagenow, a Republican from Windsor Heights, says it’s an example of bipartisan agreement — since the bill passed both the House and Senate without a dissenting vote.

“It’s just simply the right thing to do to make sure that people’s fundamental rights are protected,” Hagenow says, “that they do not have a lingering penalty or societal black mark for a crime for which they’ve been found not guilty.”

The bill got final approval in the House Tuesday. Senators gave it a final vote today and it’s headed to the governor for his review.

Senate confirms DHS chief despite closure concerns

Charles Palmer (DHS photo)

Charles Palmer (DHS photo)

The director of the Iowa Department of Human Services has won senate confirmation to stay in the job, despite complaints from some senators about controversial closings of state-run Mental Health Institutions in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant and the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo.

DHS chief Chuck Palmer was confirmed for another four-year term in the job by a vote of 39-11.

Senator Rob Hogg, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, calls the closings illegal because the legislature never approved them.

“So this is a gut check moment for this body,” Hogg said. “I think it is essential that we say, ‘No, we are not going to tolerate lawbreakers as directors of our departments.'”

Senator David Johnson, a Republican from Ocheyedan, said Palmer is a compassionate and stable leader.

“This is a gut check,” Johnson said. “…I have full confidence in director Palmer.”

Johnson also discounted a district court judge’s ruling that Governor Branstad overstepped his authority in closing the Juvenile Home.

“What a judge says is an opinion,” Johnson said. “I haven’t seen anything there that negates what happened last November. Elections have consequences and if there was a lack of confidence by the people in the direction that we’re going, we would have heard that.”

Senator Rich Taylor, a Democrat from Mount Pleasant, responded to Johnson.

“There would have been a bigger consequence to last November had the people of Iowa known the governor for three years has been planning to close these two mental health institutions,” Taylor said, “but he didn’t bother to tell anybody about that before the election.”

Palmer got five more votes than the two-thirds support he needed to win confirmation. The state senate on Tuesday also voted to confirm the governor’s budget director for another four year term. The woman who’s been leading the Department of Administrative Services since the governor fired the former director last year was also confirmed by the senate yesterday.

Senate Democrats propose budget spending equal to governor’s

Bob Dvorsky

Bob Dvorsky

Iowa Senate Democrats have proposed a state budget that’s equal to the amount of spending recommended by Republican Governor Terry Branstad.

Both the governor’s proposal and the plan issued by Senate Democrats call for a $7.341 billion state budget for the fiscal year starting on July 1st. That’s $166 million more than the budget proposed by Republicans in the House.

Senator Bob Dvorsky of Coralville, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a statement the Democrat’s budget plan is “sustainable and spends less than the state takes in.” He adds Democrat’s “number one goal is making Iowa’s middle class larger and more secure.”

Chuck Soderberg

Chuck Soderberg

House Appropriations Chairman Chuck Soderberg, a Republican from Le Mars, responded by saying the Senate Democrats’ budget targets “spend more than the hardworking taxpayers of Iowa are paying.”

The Senate budget plan calls for an increase in state funding of 2.625 percent for K-12 schools, a tuition freeze at state universities for a third consecutive year, and fully funding property tax credits and a commercial property tax cut previously approved by lawmakers.

In addition, the proposal includes an early retirement incentive package for eligible state employees that is projected to save the state $16.1 million in the next fiscal year.


DeCoster sentencing hearing underway in Sioux City

Jack DeCoster during  2010  testimony before a House committee.

Jack DeCoster during 2010 testimony before a House committee.

A sentencing hearing is underway today in Sioux City for Jack DeCoster and his son, Peter for their pleas in the case involving the conditions at an Iowa egg laying facility that led to a massive salmonella outbreak in 2010. Governor Terry Branstad commented on the issue during his weekly news conference in Des Moines.

“They’ve done some very bad things,” Branstad said. “They’ve been convicted of doing some things that actually led to the death of some people from salmonella and there’s really no excuse for that. I believe it is appropriate that they be held accountable for their actions.” Nearly two-thousand people were sickened in the outbreak linked to Quality Egg, based in Wright County.

Fifty-one-year-old Peter DeCoster of Clarion, Iowa, and his 80-year-old father, who lives in Maine, pleaded guilty last June to misbranding eggs to make them appear fresher and to bribing public officials. Inspectors found unsanitary conditions at DeCoster’s facilities in Iowa and the DeCosters have pleaded guilty to introducing adulterated food into the marketplace.

When Jack DeCoster first arrived in Iowa, he established large-scale pork production facilities and Branstad’s past political opponents over the decades have accused him of “welcoming” DeCoster to Iowa in 1987.

“You can’t tell people they can’t come to the state of Iowa, but we do expect that people who live here and are in business here follow the law and protect the health, safety and well-being of the people of Iowa,” Branstad told reporters. “And they failed to do that.”

The DeCosters have gotten out of the egg business. Fifteen years ago DeCoster was named the first “habitual violator” of Iowa environmental laws. The sentencing hearing began this morning in Sioux City, and it is unclear how long it may take before it is completed.


Branstad supports Dowling decision not to hire gay teacher (AUDIO)

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad.

Governor Terry Branstad is expressing compassion for a gay man who was denied a full-time job at Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, but Branstad is also supporting school officials who say the man’s gay lifestyle is “at odds” with Church doctrine.

“I believe everybody should be treated with respect and dignity,” Branstad told reporters this morning at his weekly news conference. “But I do also respect the rights of religious communities to have hiring practices based on the tenants of their faith.”

AUDIO of Branstad’s weekly news conference, 29:00

More than 100 Dowling students staged a walkout last week to protest the school’s decision to deny a former substitute teacher full-time employment after school administrators learned he is openly gay. Iowa’s non-discrimination law does not apply to religious institutions and the governor does not support changing that.

“My heart goes out to both the individual involved and to the school,” Branstad said. “These are difficult matters and I do think everybody should be treated with respect and dignity, but I also understand why churches and affiliated schools feel that they should be able to have hiring practices that fit within the tenants of their faith.”

Each of Brantad’s three children graduated from Dowling Catholic High School.

August 23 is now the earliest date school may start in Iowa

Students from Indianola lean in to get a close view of Gov. Branstad signing the law

Students from Indianola lean in to get a close view of Gov. Branstad signing the law

Governor Terry Branstad signed Iowa’s new “school start date” policy into law early this afternoon. Dozens of grade school kids were at the statehouse to watch as Branstad took action on the legislation.

“We have had a law on the books for over 30 years that said school is supposed to start the week that includes the first of September, but the Department of Education has routinely granted waivers that lets schools start earlier and earlier that led to the point where we had some schools starting in the early part of August, which was causing a lot of concerns for a lot of Iowa families,” Branstad told the crowd.

The bill Branstad signed into law sets August 23 as the earliest date Iowa schools may start the fall semester.

“I believe that this piece of legislation strikes a good compromise,” Branstad said.

Branstad’s Department of Education put schools on notice four months ago that it would no longer grant waivers so schools could start classes earlier in August. School officials asked legislators to help them retain “local control” and the ability to make school calendar decisions. The state’s tourism industry has long complained the earlier school start dates deprive them of income from families who stop vacationing because school activities have started, plus they lose their teenage workforce. Branstad noted the August 23 date ensures the Iowa State Fair will nearly always be concluded before school starts in Iowa.

“I think it really is a very reasonable and fair compromise,” Branstad said. “Families can enjoy their summer break up to the last week of August and students can enjoy, in addition to the opportunities in the classroom, educational opportunities that can be gained through organizations like 4H and FFA as well.”

Branstad said he’s hopeful the compromise on the school start date controversy “sets a tone” for other “tough issues” that need to be resolved in the legislature.

AUDIO of bill signing ceremony, 6:00

‘We elect a governor, not an emperor,’ says key legislator

A top Democrat in the Iowa Senate is angered by Republican Governor Terry Branstad’s declaration this past Monday that as the state’s chief executive he has broad authority to close state institutions without legislative approval.

“The last time I checked, we elect a governor, not an emperor,” Senate President Pam Jochum, a Democrat from Dubuque, told reporters Thursday.

According to Jochum, Branstad has shown a “pattern” of abusing executive power since he returned as governor in 2011.

“We just, out of the blue, closed a Juvenile Home for young women and then we start closing two Mental Health Institutes,” Jochum said. “And now, out of the blue, we’re privatizing an entire Medicaid system.”

The Branstad Administration is in the process of hiring managed care companies to handle the state’s Medicaid program. Branstad said Monday he was elected by the people of Iowa to reduce the size and cost of state government and he intends to make “tough decisions” like closing two of the state’s four Mental Health Institutes to do it. Senate Democratic Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs said the governor’s comments on Monday were “a bit over the top.”

“I don’t think the governor meant that he had unlimited power,” Gronstal told reporters Thursday. “I’m pretty sure he wishes he had unlimited power, but I don’t think he really meant that. I think it’s time to calm this stuff down, look for common ground, work together.”

The top Republican in the legislature is House Speaker Kraig Paulsen. Paulsen says he’d like to see exactly what Branstad said about executive branch authority before commenting on behalf of the legislative branch.

The Iowa Supreme Court ruled Branstad overstepped his authority in closing regional Workforce Development offices a few years ago, but the court challenge of Branstad’s decision to close the Iowa Juvenile Home without legislative action is pending before the Supreme Court.