The founders of a beef company who were major donors to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad's campaign were among the business leaders who raised concerns about a state official the governor later tried to force out, according to court documents released to The Associated Press on Wednesday.
In a legal deposition, Branstad denied allegations levied in a lawsuit that he targeted former Iowa Workers' Compensation Commissioner Chris Godfrey because Godfrey is gay. The governor said he asked Godfrey to resign and cut his pay in 2011 so he could name a more business-friendly commissioner to rule on disputes involving employers and injured workers.
Branstad has said publicly that business interests raised concerns about Godfrey. But the deposition revealed that those leaders included Beef Products Inc. founders Eldon and Regina Roth, top donors to Branstad's 2010 campaign with $152,000 in contributions.
Branstad testified that he recalled having a "very serious" meeting with the Roths about their concerns in 2010 at the company's headquarters in Dakota Dunes, South Dakota, which is near the Iowa border. The company makes a lean, finely textured beef, which critics call it "pink slime," and had a processing plant in Iowa at the time.
"They said they were concerned about the direction that the workers' compensation commission was going in Iowa, that it was driving up the costs of their business, and making the state of Iowa less competitive," Branstad testified.
Branstad's attorney, George LaMarca, said Wednesday that the governor acted lawfully in asking for Godfrey's resignation and cutting his pay. He said "no one person or business influenced the governor" on the matter.
Branstad's testimony came during a Nov. 26 deposition in a lawsuit in which Godfrey alleges the governor and his aides discriminated and retaliated against him because he is gay.
Branstad asked Godfrey, who was confirmed to a six-year term in 2009, to resign shortly after winning the November 2010 gubernatorial election. When Godfrey declined a second request to quit in July 2011, Branstad slashed Godfrey's pay by nearly $40,000 to $72,000, the lowest allowed under the position by law. Branstad testified that Godfrey's pay cut was the only one he's approved for a state executive.
The Iowa Attorney General's Office released a 441-page transcript of Branstad's deposition testimony after the AP requested the documents under the open records law. The lawsuit — which has lasted more than three years and cost the state more than $648,000 in legal fees — is set for trial in November.
Godfrey left the state job last year for a position ruling on workers' compensation disputes involving federal employees with the U.S. Department of Labor. In an interview Wednesday, Godfrey said he was surprised that Beef Products Inc. executives tried to "use political influence like that."
"That's very, very troubling," he said.
Godfrey noted that the company was concerned about a pending dispute involving an employee who suffered a work-related rotator cuff injury in 2007. Godfrey said he had little involvement in the case, in which one of his deputies faced criticism for being biased in favor of the worker.
During the deposition, Branstad repeated assertions that he didn't know Godfrey was gay until after he cut his pay. The governor said he wanted a new commissioner based on concerns that the office's decisions were potentially hurting job growth.
Branstad noted that Iowa had one of the nation's best workers' compensation climates according to one business survey, but had slipped in recent years to the middle of the pack. Workers' compensation costs in Iowa were going down, but not as fast as in states that cut benefits, according to the testimony.
Beef Products Inc., or BPI, makes its product using a process in which butchered cow trimmings are heated, lean meat is separated from fat, and ammonia gas is applied to the meat to kill bacteria. The company didn't respond to a request for comment.
When the product came under attack among critics who dubbed it "pink slime" and portrayed it as unsafe in 2012, Branstad defended BPI from what he called an unfair smear. He went with other governors to tour one of the company's plants in Nebraska to demonstrate its safety.
Facing a sudden drop in demand, the company suspended operations at three plants, including in Waterloo, Iowa. BPI filed a lawsuit in 2012 against ABC News, saying the network's coverage prompted consumer to shun the product.
Branstad repeatedly defended the company's product in the deposition, bristling when attorney Roxanne Conlin called it "pink slime."
"It's inappropriate and I strongly object to people using that pejorative, unfair term," he said.