State officials investigated Jesse Marzen, according to testimony

WAVERLY — The Iowa Attorney General’s Office initiated a criminal investigation and was collecting evidence for a “Chapter 66” removal action long before Jesse Marzen lost his job as Floyd County attorney.

Ultimately, though, officials decided to let an ethics complaint and related trial play out, according to Scott Brown, with the likely expectation Marzen would face disciplinary action.

“I thought if they did it right, that it would take Jesse Marzen out, and it did. You are right that it took too long,” Brown told a jury.

“It was supposed to get resolved sooner than it did, but it did not,” Brown added later.

Brown is special assistant attorney general and division director of area prosecutors in the Iowa Attorney General’s Office. He testified Wednesday in a civil trial now in its second week in Bremer County District Court.

The case pits Theresa Farmer, one of Marzen’s former employees, against Floyd County. Though his actions are at the root of the lawsuit, Marzen is not named as a defendant.

Brown said he received a referral from Marilyn Dettmer, the incumbent Floyd County attorney, after Marzen defeated her in a three-way race in 2006. According to Brown’s testimony, Dettmer’s complaint was related to Marzen’s pending ethics review.

That case stemmed from an initial allegation Marzen exchanged legal services for sex with a female client, a mental patient fighting an involuntary committal. The Iowa Supreme Court subsequently ruled in 2010 that Marzen had violated ethics rules for lawyers and suspended his law license.

With that action, the Floyd County Board of Supervisors deemed the county attorney’s office was vacant and appointed Marzen’s replacement.

Brown testified Wednesday authorities brought no criminal charges against Marzen and opted not to pursue the course allowed by Iowa Code to remove an elected official. One reason they did not, Brown testified, was Farmer’s attitude.

“We discussed the Chapter 66 removal action, but she was reluctant to get behind that,” Brown said.

He said Farmer and a coworker, Lisa Bartz, likely had concerns Marzen would fire them. The idea of testifying against Marzen also seemed to scare Farmer, according to Brown.

Beth Hansen, who represents Floyd County in Farmer’s lawsuit, on cross examination noted the Iowa Attorney General’s Office is assigned responsibility for “supervision” of county attorneys.

Brown agreed but said while the Iowa Attorney General’s Office has some authority over county attorneys, his office cannot hire, fire or discipline a county attorney.

“And the reality is you did nothing,” Hansen said later.

“Not true,” Brown testified.

“The reality is you didn’t do very much,” Hansen added.

“ … I was trying to help. You could argue I didn’t do a very good job of it — and you may be correct … ,” Brown testified, but he said he attempted to provide guidance as the Iowa Attorney General’s Office was able.

Brooke Timmer, one of Farmer’s lawyers, returned to the issue.

“Under Iowa law, is it the state responsible for the safety of county employees?” she asked.

“I believe it falls to the county,” Brown said.

Also Wednesday, an expert hired by Farmer’s attorneys said her past and future economic losses total slightly more than $415,800.

Sheldon Wishnick, an actuarial consultant from Connecticut, based the figure, in part, on Farmer’s wages while working for Floyd County and on her benefits package.

Jurors, however, did not hear that figure. Wishnick’s complete report went only to Judge Chris Foy, who said he may consider the information.

Wishnick did later testify in front of the jury. At that point, he only described Farmer’s economic losses from her termination on Nov. 6, 2009, through the ongoing trial in Bremer County. Wishnick put that amount at slightly less than $67,000.

Wishnick conceded making the calculation requires assumptions. Included among those are estimates of annual raises and a retirement age of 62.

Warren Dunkel, a former member of the Floyd County Board of Supervisors, also testified, describing the relationship between departments.

“Every elected official has their own office, their own kingdom,” Dunkel said. “The word ‘supervisor’ is almost a misnomer.”

He disputed the idea county supervisors can summarily reduce any elected officials’ budget during a fiscal year.

“The power to challenge or the power to change?” Dunkel asked Timmer, one of Farmer’s lawyers.

“Change,” Timmer said.

“I don’t believe so,” Dunkel added.

Dunkel also testified he never heard a particular phrase from employees working for Marzen or in conversations about the situation.

“You used the words ‘sexual harassment.’ That word was never, ever used. It was a toxic work environment,” Dunkel told Timmer.

Timmer asked if the county auditor, Gloria Carr, used the phrase.

“Never ever, ever,” Dunkel testified.

Dunkel added later, as he understood it, Marzen’s office represented “a nasty, mean environment, but not sexual.”