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Mar 8, 12:01 PM EST

Republican lawyer sues Iowa school board group over firing

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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- An attorney fired by the Iowa Association of School Boards after writing a partisan newspaper column defending Gov. Kim Reynolds has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit.

Republican activist Anna Bergman, a Waukee city councilor who recently launched a campaign for the Iowa House, is suing the association and executive director Lisa Bartusek. She claims the termination violated her free speech rights, in part because other association employees made pro-Democratic statements on social media without consequence.

Bergman, 26, was the association's director of policy and legal services from October until her dismissal last month. The Des Moines-based nonprofit works with school board members to provide training, advocacy and other services.

"It's a case about an employee speaking out on matters of public concern, who was terminated because of it," said Bergman's attorney, Scott Wadding. "That should be cause for concern."

Association spokeswoman Tammy Votava called Bergman's legal claims unfounded and said the group would "vigorously contest" them.

Bergman wrote an opinion piece that first appeared online Jan. 31 for the Des Moines Register headlined, "Iowans are not buying Democrats' hyperbole." Her column was a response to one authored by Democratic state Senate candidate Claire Celsi, who accused Reynolds and the Republican-controlled Legislature of trying to "run our state into the ground" through cuts to public services.

Bergman suggested Iowa was "in great shape and getting better every day," calling the Republican governor "a true Iowan" who deserved credit for confronting sexual harassment. She also defended Reynolds' record on education in the column, which noted her job with the association. A disclaimer added to the print version, published Feb. 7, said Bergman's views "do not necessarily reflect those of" the association.

The same day, Bergman met with Bartusek and was handed a draft separation agreement in which she would be allowed to resign if she agreed not to pursue litigation, the lawsuit says. Bergman was dismissed after declining to sign the agreement, which would have included a $7,000 severance and non-disparagement clause. Both sides would have agreed to say that Bergman resigned "after taking time to weigh her personal and political duties and aspirations with the organizational needs of IASB," according to the draft, which was attached to the lawsuit.

Bartusek said last month that she fired Bergman because the column was submitted without authorization and conflicted with the group's "need to work in an absolutely nonpartisan manner."

In her Feb. 19 lawsuit, Bergman said she wrote the column as a private citizen and her job was disclosed in accordance with newspaper policy. The lawsuit claims the association was aware of her activism and hadn't previously enforced any policy barring employees from speaking out on political matters. Bartusek and three other association employees made pro-Democratic or anti-Trump comments on Facebook before and after the 2016 election, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit seeks damages for lost wages and mental and emotional harm.

Bergman announced Feb. 20 that she's running for the House seat being vacated by Rep. Rob Taylor.

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