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Across the Region: Ex-judge faces felony charge for certifying daughter as single


Ex-judge faces felony charge for certifying daughter as single

An Iowa judge who was accused of insurance fraud and fired shortly after helping expose improper influence in Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration has been charged with a felony — two years later.

Former Administrative Law Judge Susan Ackerman surrendered Wednesday on the charge of making fraudulent submissions, which carries up to five years in prison. A complaint unsealed Thursday alleges Ackerman, 56, falsely certified that her married daughter was single so that she could receive state health insurance in 2013 and 2014. She was fired over the same allegation two years ago.

Ackerman has denied any criminal intent, noting that she asked a state human resources assistant for permission to add her daughter to the plan. Her supporters have argued that her firing and criminal investigation are retribution for her legislative testimony critical of the Republican governor and his aides. Ackerman’s union is appealing her termination, while she pursues a lawsuit claiming she suffered whistleblower retaliation.

Ackerman was booked at the Polk County Jail and released on bond after two hours in custody.

Another one of Ackerman’s daughters, Minneapolis attorney Jennifer Koockogey, said the state’s trying “to make an example” out of her mother to silence dissent.

“They are showing that, if you speak out against us, watch what happens,” said Koockogey, who isn’t involved in the allegations. “To call this anything but retaliation is incredibly naive. They’ve taken her livelihood and tried to destroy her reputation. Now, they’re trying to take her freedom. Has Iowa turned into a dictatorship?”

Koockogey predicted her mother will be exonerated, but added that “she’s going to have to walk through hell to get there.”

Under subpoena from a legislative committee, Ackerman and other judges testified in August 2014 that Iowa Workforce Development director Teresa Wahlert, a Branstad appointee, had pressured them to rule in favor of employers over workers in unemployment benefits disputes and created a hostile work environment. Ackerman criticized Branstad for supporting Wahlert “no matter what” and failing to investigate widespread concerns among judges.

The U.S. Department of Labor later agreed that Wahlert created “perceived pressure” on judges and directed the state to isolate them from intimidation as legally required.

Weeks after her testimony, Workforce Development officials say they discovered Ackerman lied on insurance forms so that her then-27-year-old daughter, Catherine Holcombe, would qualify for coverage.

Division of Criminal Investigation agents initiated the fraud investigation at Workforce Development’s request. The decision to charge Ackerman was made by the office of Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, a Democrat who said he was unaware that Ackerman had spoken out against Branstad.

Sarcone said that an assistant county prosecutor made the charging decision based on DCI’s investigative materials and politics didn’t enter into it.

“If we don’t feel we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, we’ll get rid of it. At the present time, there appears to be probable cause to go forward,” he said.

DCI spokesman Alex Murphy added that “politics does not play a role in this or any other criminal investigation.”

The Iowa Supreme Court Attorney Disciplinary Board ruled in July 2015 that Ackerman didn’t commit an ethical violation and declined to take action against her law license, dismissing the Workforce Development complaint.

Holcombe was a graduate student separated from her husband in 2012 when Ackerman inquired about whether she could be added to the insurance. Monica Reynolds, a Workforce Development human resources assistant at the time, has testified that she advised Ackerman that Holcombe was eligible.

Ackerman wrote to Reynolds that her daughter appeared to be ineligible because she wasn’t yet divorced, and Reynolds responded: “who has to know she is married?” In Ackerman’s termination letter, Workforce Development officials told Ackerman that Reynolds’ approval “does not absolve you” for falsely certifying that Holcombe was single.



EEOC sues, alleges harassment of gay oil field worker

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing an oil field services company, alleging a gay worker was harassed at the company’s North Dakota location.

The lawsuit filed in federal court claims Wyoming-based Rocky Mountain Casing Co. allowed the harassment of Michael Allyn, who worked as a driver at the company’s Williston facility from January 2011 to April 2015. The EEOC says this is the first lawsuit it has brought in North Dakota that deals with harassment over sexual orientation.

Among other things, the complaint alleges that male co-workers used offensive and homophobic slurs, defaced company vehicles with sex-based remarks about Allyn and painted a truck that Allyn was known to use with pink polka dots, hearts and rainbows. Employees also left Allyn pornographic magazines, children’s toys, board games and gave him a hat with a Spanish slang word for homosexual on it, the complaint says.

“It is hard to believe in the 21st century that harassment of this level of severity exists,” said John Hendrickson, attorney for the EEOC’s Chicago District Office, which investigated the discrimination charge. “Unfortunately, it does, and it has to stop.”

A message was left Friday with a representative for Rocky Mountain Casing Co. The representative was out of the office and there was no one available to comment.

The suit says Allyn complained about the conduct to his co-workers and to his managers but no “prompt corrective action” was taken. An attempt to reach a settlement before the lawsuit was filed was unsuccessful, the EEOC says.

The complaint seeks unspecified damages and asks that the company make steps to eliminate its “sexually hostile work environment” and discrimination.

“Employers must realize that harassing someone because of his or her perceived sexual orientation violates the law just as does other types of harassment based on sex, or harassment based on race, or harassment based on religion,” said Julianne Bowman, EEOC’s director in Chicago. “This kind of abuse is unacceptable and illegal.”



Cell-tracking case appealed to full 7th Circuit

A dissenting opinion by a federal appeals court judge on police use of secret cellphone tracking technology has convinced a Milwaukee man to take his case a step further.

Attorneys for Damian Patrick filed a petition this week asking for a rehearing in front of the full U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, after losing a split decision in November to the court’s three-judge panel. It’s the first time the use of cell tower simulators, known as stingrays, has reached a federal appellate court, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

“It is time for the stingray to come out of the shadows, so that its use can be subject to the same kind of scrutiny as other mechanisms, such as thermal imaging devices, GPS trackers, pen registers, beepers, and the like,” 7th Circuit Judge Diane Wood wrote in her dissenting opinion. “Its capabilities go far beyond any of those.”

Stingrays are suitcase-sized devices that imitate a cellphone tower and draw signals from all nearby cellphones, not just the targeted number. It allows police to zero in on the phone’s location, down to a specific apartment in a building. The phones don’t have to be in operation, and some versions of the technology can even intercept content, like texts and calls, or pull information stored on the phones.

The case stems from a 2013 incident when Milwaukee police were looking for Patrick on a violation of probation. When they found him in a car, there was a gun on the floor and he was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Months later, during a hearing on his motion to suppress the evidence, police revealed they had found Patrick not based on a tip, as initially stated, but by using records from Sprint, his cellphone service provider. After he entered a conditional guilty plea and appealed, his lawyers learned police had supplemented the Sprint data with a real-time Stingray trace.

The majority panel ruling in Patrick’s appeal concluded that since police had probable cause to arrest Patrick for his probation violation they didn’t need a warrant. And because he was in a public place, he had no privacy interest in his location, Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote. He and Judge Michael Kanne agreed there may be constitutional questions about stingrays, but that Patrick’s case isn’t the right one to explore them.

A U.S. House committee report issued Monday said clearer guidelines are needed for law enforcement’s use of secretive and intrusive cellphone tracking technology, and police and federal agents should be upfront with a judge about their deployment.

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