Police: 4 family members shot, killed in West Des Moines

WEST DES MOINES (AP) — Relatives discovered the bodies of four family members, including two children, with gunshot wounds at their home in central Iowa, police said.
The bodies were discovered Saturday morning at the home in West Des Moines, The Des Moines Register reported.
Authorities identified the victims as 44-year-old Lavanya Sunkara, 41-year-old Chandrasekhar Sunkara, and two boys aged 15 and 10 years, according to a police news release. Autopsies were being performed to determine the cause of death.
Real estate records indicate the family had owned the home since March.
West Des Moines police Sgt. Dan Wade said there was no threat to the community and that investigators were trying to determine exactly what happened. Police said the relatives who discovered the bodies — also two adults and two children — had been staying with the family as guests.
West Des Moines police and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation were investigating.
“This tragedy will impact family, friends, co-workers, anyone that knew this family,” Wade said. “We are continuing to work through this investigation. We will follow through until we have answered as many questions as the evidence allows.”
The Iowa Department of Public Safety said Chandrasekhar Sunkara worked for the department’s information technology unit for 11 years. He was not a sworn officer.

Branstad explains reason for trying to oust gay official

DES MOINES (AP) — Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad testified Friday in a civil trial that he didn’t try to pressure a state official to quit in 2010 because he is gay but because he wanted someone who shared his political views about the state’s needs.
Branstad, a Republican who is now the U.S. ambassador to China, returned to Des Moines to testify for one day in the trial in which he’s accused of discriminating against former Iowa Worker’s Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey, who is a Democrat and is openly gay.
After being elected governor in 2010, Branstad sought Godfrey’s resignation and cut his pay by $39,000 when he refused. Godfrey, who was appointed to a six-year term by Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, sued in 2012, saying he was a victim of discrimination and retaliation.
Branstad testified he didn’t know Godfrey was gay until after cutting his salary and being threatened with a lawsuit, according to The Des Moines Register .
“I have always treated everyone, gay or straight, with respect and dignity. That’s the way I have always operated,” Branstad said.
As worker’s compensation commissioner, Godfrey decided disputes between businesses and injured workers.
Branstad said he’d heard from business groups that Godfrey wasn’t fair.
Paige Fiedler, a lawyer for Godfrey, repeatedly asked Branstad if she evaluated Godfrey’s performance or sought the opinions of anyone other than those in the business community who had complained.
Branstad responded, “Well, a number of people did and I don’t know if they were business owners or not.”
Although Branstad was opposed to a 2009 Iowa Supreme Court ruling that legalized gay marriage in the state, Branstad said he now support rights for lesbians, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
“People have accepted it and I support it,” he said.
The trial began June 5 and will continue in Polk County District Court next week.

Iowa removes OWI files that exposed governor’s personal information

Associated Press
IOWA CITY — Iowa’s court system has blocked public access to online records detailing Gov. Kim Reynolds’ 2000 arrest for drunk driving, saying they inadvertently exposed her sensitive personal information.
The records contained the governor’s Social Security number, driver’s license number and other sensitive information that should not have been made public under court rules.
After an inquiry from The Associated Press last week, the court system removed public access to the files.
Iowa Judicial Branch spokesman Steve Davis said that the Warren County clerk of court’s office in Indianola received a request for the paper files last September. After retrieving them from storage, the worker scanned them into the online system.
Under rules intended to protect personal privacy, the files should have been placed at a security level that allowed only court personnel to access them. Instead, the records were inadvertently made accessible to thousands of lawyers and members of the public who use the system.
Iowa became the first state to require electronic filing of all court records in 2015. Court rules require filers to redact confidential personal information, and they can face sanctions for submissions that fail to do so. Paper files for cases that occurred before electronic filing do not have such redactions, and clerks are supposed to restrict access to them if they choose to scan those records into the system.
Davis said paper records related to the August 2000 arrest can still be accessed at the courthouse. Reynolds’ spokesman Pat Garrett declined comment.
Reynolds has said that the arrest, her second for operating while intoxicated in a year, was a turning point. She says that she got treatment for alcoholism and has been sober since then.

Iowa governor OK after chest pains prompt hospital trip

DES MOINES (AP) — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds was taken to a hospital after experiencing chest pains but has returned to work at the Capitol.
The governor’s office released a statement saying Reynolds noticed chest pains early Thursday and was taken to a hospital emergency room “out of an abundance of caution.”
A doctor checked Reynolds and she was given blood tests, a chest X-ray and an electrocardiogram test, which is commonly used to evaluate the heart. After all the tests came back normal, the governor was released.

Authorities: Drunken man backed lawn mower over child

HAWKEYE (AP) — Authorities say a man was drunk when he backed a lawn mower over a 3-year-old girl in northeast Iowa’s Fayette County.
First responders were sent to a home in Hawkeye a little after 8:45 p.m. Wednesday. Medics treated the little girl, and she was flown to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for treatment. Her name hasn’t been released.
Authorities say 23-year-old Tanner Miller’s blood alcohol level while he was mowing exceeded the legal limit for operating a motorized vehicle. He’s been charged with operating while intoxicated and with causing serious injury by vehicle. Court records don’t list the name of an attorney who could comment for him.

Iowa trial begins over alleged discrimination by ex-governor

DES MOINES (AP) — Eight jurors will decide whether former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad discriminated against an ex-state official because he’s gay in a civil case that began Wednesday and is expected to call two other former governors to the witness stand.
Branstad’s attorney, Frank Harty, said the case will center on Branstad’s return to government in 2010 and his wish to replace Chris Godfrey as the Iowa Workers’ Compensation Commissioner as the newly elected governor to surround himself with people who shared his political goals.
During his opening remarks, Harty told the jury that “elections in consequences” and the team of Democrats that Godfrey belonged to lost to the Republican Branstad and they didn’t want to accept defeat.
Harty also referred to Godfrey as “a lightning rod who earned the disdain and distrust of the business community” due to policies he implemented as commissioner and worker-friendly legislation he pushed. Branstad campaigned for governor before the 2010 election with an agenda seen as friendly to business owners.
Godfrey’s attorney, Roxanne Conlin, said her client had every right to stay in the job to which he was appointed for a six-year term. By law, the commissioner’s term overlaps that of the governor. Godfrey had four more years left on his term when Branstad returned to office in 2011.
Former Democratic Govs. Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver are on the witness list to discuss how they handled the commissioner appointment and its role in their administrations. Vilsack appointed Godfrey to the position in 2006. Culver reappointed him in 2009 and he was confirmed by the Iowa Senate to a six-year term.
Since Godfrey couldn’t be fired and he refused to quit, Conlin said that Branstad cut his pay by $39,000. Godfrey also claimed that after he complained he thought the actions were taken because he was gay, he was further mistreated.
“He was ostracized and shunned daily,” Conlin said. “He was treated as unwelcome and unwanted.”
Conlin added that Godfrey was the only executive in Branstad’s tenure to have his pay cut to the lowest possible level.
Branstad has claimed he didn’t know Godfrey was gay at the time of the pay cut, but Conlin plans to introduce witnesses and evidence to suggest otherwise.
“Discrimination is rarely admitted, so it must be proven through circumstantial evidence,” she told jurors.
Branstad’s then-Chief of Staff Jeff Boeyink was the first witness called to testify on Wednesday.
The ex-governor will return from his current job as U.S. Ambassador to China to testify on June 14.

Iowa trial begins over alleged discrimination by ex-governor

DES MOINES (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.

Iowa attorney general seeks Catholic sex abuse records

DES MOINES (AP) — Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller is asking Roman Catholic officials in Iowa to provide records on clergy sexual abuse so his office can launch a third-party review.
Miller says Monday he’s sent letters to bishops in Davenport, Des Moines, Dubuque and Sioux City seeking lists of priests and other church employees deemed “credibly accused” of sexual abuse and lists of accusations deemed not credible. He also wants notes from board meetings where accusations were considered, documentation of reports of abuse received by church officials and actions taken, and copies of settlement agreements with abuse survivors.
Miller says he wants a response by Aug. 1.
He says survivors have urged his office to investigate and “bring attention to the injustice they and others have suffered.”
Iowa Catholic Conference spokesman Tom Chapman says each diocese plans to comply with Miller’s request. He says if there have been failures in the past, it is not for lack of trying, adding “there is no perfection this side of heaven.”
Miller’s office has a report form and a hotline for survivors on his office website.

Iowa Supreme Court upholds law ending rights for some unions

DES MOINES (AP) — Iowa’s Supreme Court on Friday narrowly upheld a 2017 law that took away bargaining rights for many state employees, an early signal of the court’s new conservative majority solidified by two recent appointments by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.
In cases filed by the Iowa State Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees the divided court ruled 4-3 that the law withstands constitutional challenges and will remain in effect.
The law rewrote the state code that had been in place for 40 years by drastically reducing the number of issues public employee unions could negotiate with state and local governments.
Under the law, at least 30% of a union’s members must work in public safety  —such as police officers or state troopers — in order to quality for expanded bargaining on such things as health insurance, vacation time, work conditions and evaluations. Other unions are limited to discussing base salaries but little else.
The unions challenged the law saying it violated the equal protection clause of the Iowa Constitution by treating similarly situated state employees differently.
Both decisions written by Justice Thomas Waterman, an appointee of former Republican Gov. Terry Branstad who signed the bill into law said the court will not declare a law unconstitutional unless it clearly infringes upon the constitution.
“Our role is to decide whether constitutional lines were crossed, not to sit as a superlegislature rethinking policy choices of the elected branches,” Waterman wrote.
He was joined by a new conservative majority including another Branstad appointee,  Edward Mansfield and two justices recently named to the court by Gov. Kim Reynolds — Susan Christensen and Christopher McDonald.
The majority concluded the Legislature was rational in giving certain public safety employees the right to bargain over many more issues than those in unions in which fewer than a third of members are public safety workers.
The three dissenters include Chief Justice Mark Cady, David Wiggins and Brent Appel. Cady also was appointed by Branstad but often sides with Wiggins and Appel, who were appointed by a Democrat.
Appel wrote that the law’s arbitrary definitions of public safety employees and the differing bargaining rights are not rationally explainable.
Cady said the way the Legislature divided up public employees and awarded some greater negotiating rights than others “falls far too short of our constitution’s demands.”
“Our constitution requires laws to treat similarly situated people equally unless there is an adequate reason otherwise,” he said.
The law also prohibited the state, cities, counties and school districts from allowing payroll deduction for employee union dues while it continues to allow deductions for other purposes including charitable contributions or dues for other professional organizations.
The unions challenged that portion of the law also on equal protection grounds, but Waterman said the Constitution “does not require public employers to collect dues for the very unions that sit across the bargaining table negotiating at arms’ length for higher wages and costlier employee benefits at taxpayer expense.”
Appel said it’s obvious the real purpose was for the Legislature to weaken unions by making it more difficult for them to collect dues but he conceded “the Legislature is free to promote, or hinder, the ability of public employee unions to engage in collective bargaining.”
AFSCME Council 61 President Danny Homan said the ruling is disappointing but the union is planning new efforts to mobilize in ways never before seen in Iowa.
“We will continue fighting to sustain our families, improve our workplaces, and strengthen our communities. No court decision can stop that,” he said.
Rep. Steven Holt, the Republican who managed the bill in the House, said Democrats lost at the ballot box and attempted to use the courts as a weapon to reverse the will of the people.
“Today’s decision affirms our commitment to providing local governments with flexibility and giving taxpayers a seat at the table,” he said.
Gov. Kim Reynolds said she appreciates the court “standing up for the rule of law and upholding this legislation passed by the Iowa Legislature and signed into law by the governor.”

Reynolds dropped from suit filed over alleged discrimination

DES MOINES (AP) — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has been dropped from a lawsuit alleging that her predecessor and others in his administration singled out a former state official for a pay cut because of his political party or sexual orientation.
The long-running lawsuit filed by former Workers’ Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey against Republican former Gov. Terry Branstad is set for trial in state court on June 3 in Des Moines. The lawsuit also names the state, members of his 2010-2011 staff and former Iowa Workforce Development Director Teresa Wahlert. Reynolds, also a Republican, was Branstad’s lieutenant governor.
Godfrey’s attorney, Roxanne Conlin, told The Associated Press that dropping Reynolds from the suit was a strategic decision.
“She had very little to do with any issue on the case,” Conlin said.
Reynolds’ spokesman had no immediate comment, and attorneys representing the state didn’t immediately reply to a message.
Godfrey claims discrimination and retaliation and violation of his constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.
In court documents filed Wednesday, Conlin indicated hopes to seek $6 million to $10 million in damages for emotional distress and three times that amount in punitive damages. Godfrey also wants to recover his attorney’s fees and costs, which court documents indicate exceed $2.6 million.
Attorneys representing Branstad and the state have billed about $1 million to taxpayers so far.
Branstad slashed Godfrey’s pay by 35% after the commissioner refused the governor’s request to resign in 2011. Godfrey argues it was improperly motivated by his status as an openly gay man and a Democrat. But Branstad says he didn’t know Godfrey was gay and he simply wanted a more “pro-business” commissioner than Godfrey, who had been appointed and reappointed by prior Democratic governors.
The lawsuit was filed in January 2012 and has gone to the Iowa Supreme Court twice. It is among the first cases to seek monetary damages from the state based on allegations that a government official infringed on the rights of an individual. Godfrey overcame a legal hurdle in June 2017 when the state Supreme Court allowed him to seek damages for alleged political retaliation. The ruling made it easier for Iowa residents to sue government officials who violate their rights.
Godfrey is now the chief judge of the board that decides federal workers’ compensation disputes in Washington.
Branstad is now the U.S. ambassador to China.