Charge against ex-Iowa judge is retaliation, supporters say

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Authorities charged a former Iowa judge with insurance fraud days after she appeared in court to challenge her two-year-old firing over the same allegation — timing that her supporters call retaliation.

Former Administrative Law Judge Susan Ackerman joined her union, AFSCME Iowa Council 61, in a Polk County courtroom on Dec. 16 as the union sought to overturn an error-riddled arbitration decision that upheld her termination.

Four days later, Ackerman was told a warrant had been issued charging her with insurance fraud, according to her daughter, attorney Jennifer Koockogey. Ackerman was told to report to jail in Des Moines by 5 a.m. the next morning or face arrest, Koockogey said.

“Every time she takes a step against the state, they retaliate,” Koockogey said.

The Polk County Attorney’s Office and Division of Criminal Investigation have denied any political motive for the felony charge, which carries up to five years in prison. But they haven’t explained why the alleged fraud discovered two years ago took so long to investigate.

A criminal complaint alleges Ackerman, 56, falsely certified that one of her married adult daughters was single so that she could receive state health insurance in 2013 and 2014. Iowa Workforce Development fired the 15-year judge over the same allegation in January 2015.

Ackerman has denied any intent to defraud, noting that she asked a human resources assistant in 2012 for permission to add the daughter.

She has filed a lawsuit alleging that her firing was whistleblower retaliation, and the Iowa Supreme Court is considering whether to review that case. Agency officials discovered the alleged fraud in November 2014, weeks after Ackerman and other judges told lawmakers that Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration was pressuring them to favor employers over jobless workers in disputes over unemployment benefits.

AFSCME separately challenged her firing under its collective bargaining agreement, arguing Ackerman was treated more harshly than other workers. One employee was suspended, but not prosecuted, for adding his unmarried partner and her daughter to his insurance. Another Workforce Development judge wasn’t disciplined after giving false testimony to lawmakers under oath.

Arbitrator John Sandy upheld Ackerman’s firing in January, saying that her alleged fraud was cause for termination. But Ackerman and her union called that hearing unfair after Sandy recorded himself discussing the case afterward and accidentally released the audio to attorneys involved. In the recording, Sandy said he read articles about Ackerman’s firing — contradicting his claim that he knew nothing about it — and accused Ackerman of “badmouthing the new administration.”

The Iowa Public Employment Relations Board in August ruled that Sandy’s decision contained “substantive inaccuracies and omissions,” and numerous spelling and grammar mistakes. The board suspended Sandy for six months for violating its rules but said it was powerless to overturn his binding decision.

AFSCME asked Judge Douglas Staskal to vacate Sandy’s decision this month, arguing his comments and inaccuracies revealed bias. A state lawyer argued the decision should stand.

Staskal is expected to rule soon on whether a new arbitration hearing is needed. Should Ackerman obtain reinstatement, the state would have to pay Ackerman her $112,000-annual salary retroactive to her firing.

AFSCME attorney Mark Hedberg said the criminal charge shouldn’t affect the outcome, noting it’s not in the record, but that he’d like to know more about the timing of the decision. “I don’t know why it would take that long to investigate it,” he said.

Ackerman, who is trying to start a mediation practice in Minnesota, is free on bond and scheduled to be arraigned Feb. 6.

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Helmer Friedman LLP helping you navigate through the state and federal whistleblower programs that may reward you for reporting fraud.

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