IOWA CITY, Iowa — A former rural Iowa court official pleaded guilty Monday to forgery for filing false documents to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple from central Florida, in the first case of its kind in Iowa.
Former Grundy County deputy clerk Brigitte Van Nice, 42, received a fine and a suspended sentence after entering the guilty pleas to perjury and forgery charges at the courthouse in Grundy Center, where she used to work.
The resolution drew criticism from Joab Penney of Williston, Fla., who says Van Nice’s actions duped him out of $150 and gave him an unending legal headache. Penney said he was outraged when court officials advised him Monday he should hire an attorney to petition to void his marriage license – which he said should have never been issued in the first place.
“They found her guilty, but what I wanted – to have my marriage voided – didn’t happen,” he told The Associated Press. “Now I’m going to have to pay for voiding something that never even happened.”
Referring to the sentence issued by Judge Bradley Harris, he said: “That’s really light. That’s a legal document. If that was me or you, we would be going to prison, wouldn’t we?”
Van Nice was arrested and suspended from her job in October after investigators discovered that she issued a license last year to Penney and his then-boyfriend Joseph Parker, who had never set foot in Iowa. She was later fired for violating judicial branch policies, court administrator Linda Nilges said.
Penney and Parker contacted Van Nice’s office randomly when inquiring about how to get a license, which they could not get in Florida, where same-sex marriage is outlawed. Iowa allows same-sex marriage for couples who come to the state for a ceremony witnessed by two people.
Prosecutors say Van Nice issued them a license after she filed documents falsely claiming she had officiated a Valentine’s Day wedding for the couple a nd faked two witness signatures. Van Nice falsely told colleagues that she had met the men at a Waterloo truck stop, where they asked her to officiate and had lined up the witnesses.
The Florida men discovered the fraud months later, when Penney contacted an attorney to seek a divorce. The attorney was suspicious because the men had never been to Iowa and Van Nice mailed the application materials from her home, not the courthouse. The attorney contacted authorities asking for an investigation.
Penney said he now wants to marry a woman in Florida, but officials there say that he’s legally married to Parker and needs to obtain a divorce first.
“My marriage never happened. It should be voided. Period. Done. Never happened,” he said. “The lady told me a bunch of crap and got money out of me.”
County Recorder Charles Kruse said Monday he had no idea whether Penney’s marriage remained valid, but that he advised him to “contact an attorney and petition the court.”
Harris found Van Nice guilty of one count of aggravated misdemeanor forgery, and issued a deferred judgment on two other counts of forgery and perjury, meaning they will be wiped off her record if she stays out of trouble.
The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation has said that Van Nice’s arrest was the first of its kind in Iowa, which was the first Midwestern state to allow same-sex marriage in 2009. National experts on gay rights also said the case appeared to be unique.
Penney said he has been frustrated by the lack of answers from officials in Iowa and the legal limbo he’s in.
“I want to get married here to a woman, and I can’t,” he said. “It’s a major headache. I’ve changed my lifestyle because of all of this. It has offended me that much.”
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