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Top female officer sues Iowa for gender bias, retaliation

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FILE: Iowa state capitol

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A top-ranking female Iowa law enforcement officer is suing the state police department, saying she has faced years of retaliation after reporting misspending and gender discrimination.

Charis Paulson alleges that she is the only director with the Iowa Department of Public Safety to work in a cubicle and not a private office, to not have an assigned parking spot, to be excluded from director meetings, and to report to someone with a lower rank.

She’s also the only woman among the department’s directors, assistant directors and majors, according to a lawsuit filed this week in Polk County that reveals a long-running and messy state personnel case.

Paulson alleges that she wasn’t allowed to speak at a 2019 department-sponsored Women’s Leadership Academy to provide mentoring for female officers, while each male director was introduced and provided welcoming remarks.

Paulson began her career as a special agent with the Division of Criminal Investigation, which investigates major crimes across Iowa. She rose through the ranks to become the first female director of the division in 2012, a promotion the department celebrated but that she held for less than two years.

Paulson alleges her career was sidetracked after she was reassigned to be the department’s director of administration in 2014, following a scandal in which she fired an agent who had reported then-Gov. Terry Branstad’s SUV for excessive speeding.

Paulson alleges that as administration director, she discovered some of the department’s budgeting practices were illegal or improper because money was being spent for purposes different than intended, the lawsuit says, without elaborating.

Paulson alleges she reported the problem in 2016 to then-Public Safety Commissioner Roxann Ryan, who retired in 2018. Paulson also told Ryan multiple times that she was facing “disparate treatment” than male department leaders, saying she was excluded from emails, meetings and decisions.

The lawsuit alleges Ryan took no action on Paulson’s complaints but reassigned her to oversee the department’s accreditation bureau, an undesirable position widely known as the “penalty box” for employees who have fallen out of favor.

While that had been a short-term stop for male employees before her, Paulson alleges that she was stuck in the job for more than five years despite attempts to return to roles that would use her 20 years of experience and skill in investigations. Other states typically use lower-level employees for overseeing accreditation, according to Paulson, who earned $151,000 in salary last year.

Paulson alleges that she was passed over in favor of a male with less administrative experience when she applied to be the director of investigative operations in 2018. When he retired in 2020, Paulson again expressed interest in the position.

Commissioner Stephan Bayens, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds to replace Ryan in 2019, sought to discourage her from applying, the lawsuit says. Instead, he offered her a new position that she recently assumed overseeing accreditation, professional development, peer support, training and professional services.

Bayens also gave Paulson a surprise performance evaluation, her first in five years, even though he was not her direct supervisor and was critical of her leadership and communications, the lawsuit alleges. Bayens soon hired Division of Narcotics Enforcement assistant director Paul Feddersen over Paulson for the investigative director opening and prepared a memo highlighting Feddersen’s leadership and communications strengths to justify the selection, the lawsuit says.

Paulson previously filed a gender discrimination complaint with the Department of Administrative Services, which completed an investigation earlier this year but refused to share the findings with her, the lawsuit says. The Department of Public Safety also took the unusual step of seeking to block the report’s release to Paulson during an Iowa Civil Rights Commission proceeding, it says.

The lawsuit asks a court to rule that the department violated the Iowa Civil Rights Act and to award damages for mental and emotional distress.

Department spokeswoman Debbie McClung declined comment Wednesday.

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