Jackson County’s insurance company wrote a $500,000 check to the estate of Drew Edwards last month, but no public vote on the matter was taken by the board of supervisors in what appears to be a violation of Iowa law, according to at least some public policy experts.
Supervisors and Jackson County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Steve Schroeder met Aug. 18 in closed session to discuss the litigation with Jason Palmer, the Des Moines attorney representing both the county and Schroeder in the wrongful death lawsuit filed last fall by Edwards’ family, according to published board meeting agendas. No public action was taken after that session, and the lawsuit has not been on the supervisors’ weekly agenda since.
Jackson County attorney Sara Davenport said last Wednesday it was her understanding from Palmer that the supervisors did not need to take any action because they were not objecting to the settlement.
But it still should have been dealt with publicly, according to a lawyer who specializes in Iowa’s open records laws.
“The decision not to exercise its right to object to a settlement is a decision that must be made by the board through formal action in open session,” said Joe Quinn, an attorney with Nyemaster Goode law firm in Des Moines.
Under Iowa Code 21.3, final action taken by any governmental body on any matter shall be taken in an open session unless some other provision of the code expressly permits such actions to be taken in closed session. But those types of exceptions would deal with a real estate deal, for example.
Dave O’Brien, the lawyer representing the Edwards family, said the lack of public action is troubling.
“A big part of the reason for the settlement from Drew’s family’s perspective is the admission of fault necessarily implied from the level of compensation paid. Note that $500,000 is a lot of money and establishes significant liability for an egregious wrong,” he said. “We hate to see the county try to escape the impact of that admission by trying to pretend the county did not settle the case.”
The settlement between the insurance company and the family was approved Sept. 1, O’Brien said. But days after that both Schroeder and Supervisor Chair Mike Steines said in phone conversations with the Sentinel-Press that the case was still in litigation and no settlement had been made.
Last Wednesday, the Sentinel-Press received a copy of a check dated Sept. 24 written by the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool (ICAP), the county’s insurance company, to the Drew Edwards Estate. Also last Wednesday, Steines said he had just heard that morning that the suit had been settled and referred questions about why there was not a public vote to Palmer. Schroeder did not respond to an email, his requested method of contact from the Sentinel-Press.
In his first response in months to repeated attempts by the newspaper seeking his comment since the lawsuit was filed, Palmer said in an email sent Friday morning, “It is my understanding you have claimed to have talked to several attorneys who have said that the board of supervisors’ decision not to exercise its right to object to a settlement is a decision that must be made by the board through formal action in open session. We believe however Jackson County followed state open records law regarding the settlement in this case.”
Palmer did not respond to further questions from the Sentinel-Press asking him to cite Iowa Code to support his statement and to explain why county officials appeared to be unaware of a settlement for more than a month.
“If what the supervisors did was within the letter of law, it certainly was not in keeping with the spirit of the law,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. “The citizens of Jackson County deserved to have their supervisors act in a more open and transparent manner.”
The Maquoketa City Council approved a $4 million settlement in the matter during a meeting last month, more than a year after Edwards died while in police custody.
The city also agreed to retain Anthony Thompson, the sheriff of Black Hawk County, to conduct a review of its law enforcement agency’s use of force and restraint policies and update them as deemed necessary, including implementing an additional training module regarding the use of force and restraints in making arrests. That element, contained in a global release signed by the city last month, was important to the Drew Edwards’ family, his parents, Barbara and Walter Edwards, have said.
Edwards was 22 when he died on June 15, 2019, after Maquoketa Police Officer Mike Owen shot him with a Taser. Owen, Schroeder and Maquoketa Police Officer Brendan Zeimet then restrained him at the southeast corner of Apple and Main streets. Officers restrained Edwards face-down on the ground for about 12 minutes. Edwards became unresponsive at the scene and was pronounced dead at Jackson County Regional Health Center.
A report released last fall by Dr. Kelly Kruse, assistant Iowa state medical examiner, said that cardiac arrest during restraint caused Edwards’ death.
Last September, Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren and the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation found no evidence of criminal conduct by the Maquoketa Police Department and the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office in Edward’s death. Ostergren reviewed the case at Jackson County Attorney Sara Davenport’s request.
Not satisfied with those findings, the family filed a wrongful death suit against the City of Maquoketa, Jackson County, Owen, Schroeder and Zeimet in October.
The lawsuit alleged, among other things, that the officers used excessive force and that the Taser was deployed despite police knowing Edwards had a heart condition and that he had previously had an adverse reaction to being tased. The civil case was expected to go to trial in Cedar Rapids in April, O’Brien said.
The city, Zeimet and Owen were represented by Terry Abernathy and Bradley Kaspar of Pickens, Barnes & Abernathy of Cedar Rapids. The county and Schroeder were represented by Palmer and Benjamin Erickson of Bradshaw, Fowler, Proctor & Fairgrave of Des Moines.