A key witness in the Iowa Department of Public Safety’s investigation of a speeding incident involving Gov. Terry Branstad is a sheriff’s deputy once fired by the department, he confirmed Monday.
Hamilton County Sheriff’s Deputy Rod Hicok told The Associated Press that he used a laser gun to clock an SUV, which he later learned was the governor’s vehicle, speeding 19 mph over the limit in April. He said he is scheduled to be interviewed Tuesday by DPS officials as part of their ongoing review of the actions of the two troopers involved.
Hicok spent three decades with Iowa State Patrol, an agency within DPS, before his termination for sharing racially offensive emails and jokes in 2009, including one portraying President Obama’s supporters as criminals. He clashed with DPS during an unsuccessful two-year fight in which he argued his firing was politically motivated. On Monday, he said he didn’t harbor a grudge.
Hicok said he had just finished a lunch break on April 26 with Iowa State Patrol Trooper Matthew Eimers at a truck stop when Eimers was asked to respond to a report of a vehicle traveling 90 mph on Highway 20. Hicok acted as Eimers’ backup, and the two pulled over on the side of the state highway waiting for the speeding vehicle to pass. Hicok said he clocked the governor’s vehicle multiple times traveling 84 mph in a 65-mph zone.
Hicok confirmed that, in a video of the incident, he can be heard telling Eimers which vehicle he clocked and instructing him to, “Stop him and ask what’s going on.”
“That was me telling him which one it was,” Hicok said Monday.
Hicok said his involvement ended there. Eimers raced through traffic to catch up to the SUV, eventually letting it go without being stopped after realizing that another trooper, Steve Lawrence, was driving Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.
The officer who initiated the pursuit was Special Agent in Charge Larry Hedlund of the Division of Criminal Investigation. Hedlund was fired last week over what the department called unbecoming conduct and discourteous behavior.
Hedlund contends that his firing was retaliation for filing an internal complaint in which he warned that the pursuit put public safety at risk and that the governor shouldn’t be considered above the law. Branstad heatedly denied any retaliation last week, calling Hedlund’s firing a fair decision over behavior that was unrelated to the complaint.
DPS, which includes the patrol and DCI, is expected to complete its review of the actions of Eimers and Lawrence this week. Branstad has ordered a separate review of 3,218 undercover license plates granted to government vehicles, including his SUV, that keep them out of computer databases and therefore lets them out of tickets from some traffic cameras.
Hicok said he has a good relationship with local troopers and would withhold judgment about the current investigation until his interview. “I do have issues with some people,” he said.
Hicok came under scrutiny in 2009 when he used his state computer to forward an email showing mug shots of 15 suspects, most of them black, wearing Obama shirts. “Anyone out there have any mugshots of people wearing any President Bush or John McCain shirts? Didn’t think so!!” the email read.
Hicok, then a sergeant, added his own commentary, saying he had seen some “unique individuals – AKA (expletives)” – wearing similar shirts.
“He has quite a fan base. Nice to know that the lowlifes are getting involved in politics now,” Hicok wrote to 13 individuals in and out of government.
One recipient forwarded the email to a Des Moines Register columnist. Then-Public Safety Commissioner Eugene Meyer suspended Hicok for 30 days and gave him a “last-chance” warning, after meeting with Democratic lawmakers who were outraged. Hicok, who had been considered an exemplary employee with no prior discipline, apologized and promised it wouldn’t happen again.
But within months, Hicok printed off a racist joke that was left on the desk of a secretary. It was about how Nigerian con artists, Islamic welfare cheats and Hispanic gang members died in an apartment fire while the two white residents survived because “they were at work.” Days later, Hicok gathered co-workers around his laptop to watch a comedy sketch by comedian Carlos Mencia in which Mencia joked about how Hispanic immigrants were taking so many jobs that whites had to learn to speak “wetback English” so they could find employment.
Hicok was fired for unbecoming conduct and violating the department’s communications policy. He appealed, arguing that he was fired due to political pressure and that his emails and jokes shouldn’t outweigh his positive service. But several review panels, including the Iowa Court of Appeals in 2011, upheld his termination.
Hicok said he’s worked for Hamilton County Sheriff Denny Hagenson for three years.
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