IOWA CITY (AP) — An Iowa state trooper who was fired for hazing his bunkmate during basic training has been reinstated because an arbitrator found that academy officials failed to discipline several others who took part in the attack.
Joshua Guhl committed misconduct when he handcuffed the man, pulled down his pants and rubbed powder on his buttocks in front of other recruits in a barracks at Camp Dodge in Johnston in 2008, Arbitrator Harvey Nathan wrote in a ruling released Wednesday to The Associated Press. Guhl carried out the stunt in an attempt to humiliate the man, who is now a trooper, and get him to quit, he added.
“What first occurs to the arbitrator is: What was Guhl thinking?” the Chicago arbitrator wrote in his ruling dated Saturday. “In any event, there can be no minimizing of the brutal attack on a weak and innocent bunkmate.”
Nevertheless, Guhl’s termination wasn’t justified because of the Department of Public Safety’s mishandling of the case, Nathan wrote.
He said leaders of its 20-week basic training academy should’ve uncovered the abuse and disciplined everyone involved, including several recruits who didn’t intervene to stop the attack or who cheered it on. The lack of discipline against them means there wasn’t “just cause” to fire Guhl, the standard needed to terminate union workers, he concluded.
“Surely, the Academy needs to teach recruits that troopers do not simply turn away when they see a colleague do something intolerable, let alone join forces with the miscreant after the hazing began,” Nathan wrote.
Nathan ordered Guhl reinstated as a trooper based in Stockton in eastern Iowa without back pay, saying the time since his Jan. 31 firing should be considered an unpaid suspension.
The Department of Administrative Services said Wednesday that the ruling must be kept secret based on advice from the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, which considers it a confidential personnel record. But the Public Employment Relations Board released a copy, shedding light on a case once shrouded in secrecy.
Guhl was placed on paid administrative leave in May 2012, one day after the hazing victim complained to an Iowa State Patrol official about what happened four years earlier. The trooper said he came forward because he was suffering emotional distress and was afraid to do so while at the academy because it was a hostile environment.
In a phone call secretly recorded by the victim, Guhl admitted to the hazing, saying the victim never should have been allowed to graduate the academy.
“You’re gonna put somebody else’s life in danger. You shouldn’t be wearing the uniform,” Guhl told him.
The Polk County Attorney’s Office declined to bring criminal charges. After a lengthy internal investigation, Guhl and Division of Criminal Investigation agent Andrew Harrelson were fired. Their union, the State Police Officers Council, filed grievances seeking their reinstatement, arguing the terminations weren’t justified.
Harrelson has denied allegations that he was involved. A ruling in his case, from another arbitrator, is due this month.
Guhl, 33, said Wednesday that he was ready to return to work.
“I’m just relieved because a lot of the stress that I had is gone,” he said.
A former Marine who served in Iraq, Guhl was identified as a superior candidate at the 2008 academy and elevated to a leadership position among the 34 recruits for DCI and patrol jobs. Academy officials repeatedly bunked him with another recruit who was struggling in training.
Guhl testified that he became fed up with the man’s repeated failures, and believed that his bunkmate wasn’t being fired only because his father was a trooper. He said he believed that academy leaders wanted him to do their dirty work by pressuring the man to shape up or quit.
Guhl had learned of the powder hazing technique, known as bonding, in the Marines. He said he handcuffed the man’s wrists, led him to a bed and told him to lie down on his stomach. The man’s pants were pulled down and Guhl poured powder on his buttocks.
A key dispute was whether academy leaders learned about the hazing in 2008. Guhl testified that he told the academy’s director at the time, Lt. Rob Hansen, about the incident days after it happened. Hansen testified that at the time, he only knew that Guhl had verbally harassed the victim and that he ordered it to stop. Records that could shed light on the matter are missing.
Nathan determined that academy leaders should have questioned the victim after learning he’d been repeatedly ridiculed by Guhl, which would have uncovered the physical abuse. That should have led to discipline against all recruits involved and Guhl might have faced a punishment less severe than termination, he wrote.
“It was not the length of time of the investigation that prejudiced Guhl,” Nathan wrote. “It was the academy’s failure to be on top of misbehavior in the barracks.”