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Iowa corrections lawyer alleges racial bias in pay dispute

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The longtime top lawyer for the Iowa Department of Corrections alleges in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that he has suffered workplace discrimination and unequal pay because of his age and Hispanic ethnicity.

Michael Savala, 54, alleges that the department’s recently retired director, Jerry Bartruff, treated him so poorly in recent years that Savala developed a serious teeth-grinding problem and other health issues due to stress. He says his complaints to the office of Gov. Kim Reynolds, the Department of Administrative Services and others about his alleged “disparate treatment” didn’t address the situation.

Savala has been with the department that operates Iowa’s prisons for 20 years, serving as its only in-house lawyer. Savala, who is among the highest-ranking Hispanic employees in the Iowa executive branch, provides legal advice to the department and wardens and oversees jail inspections, the offender disciplinary system and its legislative lobbying program.

Department spokesman Cord Overton declined comment on the lawsuit, which was filed in Polk County.

After Bartruff was named the department’s director in 2015 by then-Gov. Terry Branstad, the lawsuit alleges Bartruff did not include Savala in staff meetings and strategy retreats and told him without explanation that he no longer wanted him to supervise employees.

Beginning in January 2016, Bartruff refused to complete performance reviews for Savala that are required annually by Iowa code, despite requests from Savala and reminders from human resources officials, the lawsuit alleges. Bartruff ultimately did not complete Savala’s reviews for 2015, 2016 and 2017 without explanation, even as he did them for younger white employees whom he supervised and awarded annual merit raises of up to 5 percent, the lawsuit alleges.

Savala alleges the snubs cost him more than $28,000 in lost wages but the “personal toll has been far greater.” His teeth suffered damage from stress-induced grinding, and he started taking medication for stress, anxiety and insomnia, it says.

In May 2018, the lawsuit alleges that an unidentified co-worker made a “racial statement” about him in the workplace, and that he filed a complaint with the Department of Administrative Services. He says he hasn’t been informed about the findings of its investigation.

Bartruff retired in December after a 36-year career with the department, and Reynolds praised his leadership and moves to focus the department on evidence-based rehabilitation. Attempts to reach him for comment Wednesday weren’t immediately successful.

The governor named Dan Craig as the department’s interim director last month while she conducts a nationwide search to fill the position.

Savala alleges that he took several steps to try to avoid litigation against his department but was thwarted. He says he still has never received an explanation for why Bartruff wouldn’t do his reviews, and the state never even responded to a complaint he filed with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

Savala is represented by Des Moines attorney Gary Dickey, who has filed several high-profile legal actions against the Republican governor’s administration.

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