Weekly News Roundup: Grassley Employee Has Sought to Undermine Trump-Russia Probe, History of Extreme Blog Posts

Also: Sibley man wins free-speech fight against town, wrongful termination lawsuit against Branstad tossed, Iowa Dems file records request for more info on state director fired for sexual harassment, and more

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The Informer’s weekly news roundup, presented in partnership with KHOI community radio.

ProPublica published a lengthy report last week looking at Jason Foster, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s chief investigative counsel, and his yearlong effort to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s grand jury investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. As the head of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley is Foster’s boss. “With Foster in charge of his oversight work, Grassley has openly speculated about whether former FBI director James Comey leaked classified information as Comey raised alarms about President Donald Trump’s possible interference in the Russia probe,” the article reads. “Grassley and the other Republicans on the committee have questioned the impartiality of a former member of Mueller’s team, cast doubt on the credibility of the FBI’s secret court application for permission to surveil a Trump campaign associate and called for a second special counsel to investigate matters related to Hillary Clinton.” According to the report, Foster was also behind Grassley’s “high unusual public announcement” requesting that federal officials weigh criminal charges against Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled the so-called Trump dossier.

A decade ago, ProPublica discovered, Foster published an anonymous blog that commonly posted extreme viewpoints, including a warning that Muslims may seize control of the country, comparison of homosexuality to incest, and doubt that waterboarding was torture. Reached by the news outlet, Foster claimed the posts were satirical, “stupid, and wrong.”

Sibley Man Wins Free-Speech Lawsuit Against City

On Thursday, US District Judge Leonard Strand issued a court injunction against the town of Sibley ordering it to no longer threaten legal action against a 28-year-old resident. The resident, Joshua Harms, published a website called Should you move to Sibley, Iowa? that criticized the town for smelling “like rancid dog food” because of odors from the Iowa Drying & Processing manufacturing plant. Last year, Sibley officials sent Harms a cease-and-desist letter telling him that his website was hurting business in the town and that if he did not take it down within 10 days, he would be sued. Instead, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, Harms sued his town. Adding another twist, in February the owner of the manufacturing plant also sued the town, claiming an odor ordinance it had repeatedly enforced against it had cost the plant millions of dollars, made it more difficult to sell the plant, and was illegally vague and arbitrary.

In related news, the ACLU of Iowa is hosting an event called Know Your Rights: Student Edition at the Ames Public Library on Wednesday, April 11, at 6 p.m.

Judge Dismisses DCI Agent’s Wrongful Termination Lawsuit Against Branstad

On Friday, District Court Judge David May threw out a lawsuit filed by Larry Hedlund, a former Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent who was fired in 2013 shortly after he reported that the SUV used by then-Gov. Terry Branstad and his Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds routinely violated traffic laws for speeding. Hedlund sued the state and Branstad specifically, alleging wrongful termination, a whistleblower protection violation, and defamation when Branstad cited “morale issues” as the reason for his termination during a 2013 press conference. May dismissed the lawsuit, saying Branstad could not have defamed him for speaking about “matters of a general interest to the public” and that Hedlund failed to exhaust his other options before filing suit. An attorney for Hedlund told the Des Moines Register that they plan to appeal the ruling to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Iowa Democratic Party Files Public Records Request for Details on Dave Jamison Sexual Harassment Termination

The Iowa Democratic Party filed a public records request Wednesday for more information about Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ termination of Iowa Finance Authority Director Dave Jamison over sexual harassment claims. A spokesperson for Reynolds announced in late March that Jamison had been fired after “the governor’s office was made aware of credible allegations of sexual harassment” the previous evening, but has not elaborated further. The IDP has requested Jamison’s hiring records and personnel file; emails from the governor’s office and IFA regarding harassment and Jamison’s termination; and Reynolds’ schedules, call logs, and emails for the day before and of his termination.

Jamison’s firing came in the wake of the Iowa GOP’s mismanagement of rampant sexual harassment in its state Senate office that resulted in a $1.75 million taxpayer-funded settlement for Kirsten Anderson, a former communications director in the office. Jamison is a former Story County treasurer who is also a Republican and has had close ties to Reynolds in the past.

Wall Street Journal Highlights Iowa Obamacare-Skirting Bill

A health insurance bill that will likely soon be signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds “will become the latest test of the ability of states to allow coverage that doesn’t comply with the federal Affordable Care Act,” the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. The legislation would allow the Iowa Farm Bureau to partner with Wellmark Blue Cross & Blue Shield to sell health insurance coverage that doesn’t comply with the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Iowa Democrats including state Sen. Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City have criticized the bill, arguing that it will cost the state $2 million and doesn’t include a requirement that health insurance plan data be reported.

Five Iowa Cities Selected for Medical Cannabidiol Dispensaries

Last Tuesday, the Iowa Department of Public Health offered licenses to three companies allowing them to open medical cannabidiol dispensaries in five cities across the state. The companies are MedPharm Iowa, which was given licenses to operate in Sioux City and the Des Moines suburb of Windsor Heights; Have a Heart Compassion Care, for Council Bluffs and Davenport; and Iowa Cannabis Co., for Waterloo. MedPharm Iowa, whose parent company is based in Colorado, where marijuana is legal, is the only company in Iowa with a license to manufacture cannabis oil here. Although Iowa’s system is routinely referred to as a medical marijuana program, cannabidiol is a non-psychoactive part of the cannabis plant and pot itself remains fully illegal in the state.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.