DES MOINES, Iowa -- Michael Byars' effort to modify the state's sex offender laws was a case study for effective citizen activism at the Iowa Legislature -- right up until last week, when he was arrested and fired from his job. Byars, 24, of Davenport has been the driving force behind legislation allowing sex offenders to have their lifetime parole sentences lifted under certain circumstances.
But now Byars, himself a registered sex offender, faces up to two years in prison. The reason: He didn't update the state sex offender registry to reflect his voluntary, unpaid and, so far, largely successful attempt to convince lawmakers to change the law -- something his attorney calls a big misunderstanding.
It's a deeply personal issue to Byars, who was convicted in 2008 of lascivious acts with a child following what he describes as a short, consensual relationship with a 13-year-old high school freshman while he was an 18-year-old high school senior. The conviction landed him on the state's sex offender registry and saddled him with a lifetime parole sentence that requires him to check in regularly with a parole officer and stringently limits his interaction with children, including his own son.
The bill he's pushing would allow individuals in so-called Romeo-and-Juliet cases to seek an early discharge from lifetime parole sentences and has won what some Capitol insiders describe as a stunning series of legislative victories.
The bill has already cleared the Senate and won committee approvals in the House -- procedural milestones lobbyists sometimes work years to achieve on an individual bill. That he's made such progress on legislation making life easier for convicted sex offenders makes his success all the more incredible.
"He's gotten this bill all the way through -- it's funnel-proof right now," said longtime lobbyist Marty Ryan, referring to a legislative deadline Byars' bill has met. "That's something many of us can't do."
Senate lobbyist clerk Kathy Stachon said she's fielded procedural questions from Byars and witnessed his dogged interactions with lawmakers for weeks. "We just have so much respect for this kid and what he's done," she said.
But that legislative success has now unleashed a torrent of personal problems for Byars.
Byars was in the Capitol last week to testify in favor of his bill and watch it win two key approvals in the House. But back home in Davenport on Friday, Byars was visited by a Scott County sheriff's deputy, who snapped handcuffs on his wrists and hauled him in for failing to maintain his sex offender registration.
He was bonded out that same day, but on Saturday he received a call from his boss at Pizza Hut, where he works as a delivery driver. A manager had been informed of his arrest, the boss said, and so Byars was being terminated.
As Byars and his attorney understand it, someone familiar with his lobbying efforts in the Capitol contacted Scott County authorities, arguing that his advocacy on behalf of the legislation amounted to employment that must be recorded in the sex offender registry.
"Just because I've been going up there and trying to stand up for something I feel is right, now I'm being charged with failure to register that I was lobbyist," he said. "And I lost my job."
That's essentially what the complaint affidavit filed by police says as well: that Byars "obtained employment" as a lobbyist on March 6 but failed to register that new job and his personal email address when he updated his information with the Scott County Sheriff's Office the next day. Failing to register is an aggravated misdemeanor.
Byars says the misunderstanding is the result of his naivete in navigating the rules and protocols for legislative lobbying. He did file paperwork to officially register as a lobbyist, but legislative officials say that wasn't necessary given his personal interest in the bill and the fact he wasn't advocating on behalf of another person or organization.
Byars compounded that mistake by identifying himself as a lobbyist for three organizations with which he had no connection, the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators, Iowa Safe Kids and the Judicial Retirement System.
He said he simply misread the filing instructions and believed he was being asked to choose organizations whose work he agreed with from a list included in the registration process.
Davenport attorney Cathy Cartee, who is defending Byars, says it's clear that registering as a lobbyist was a mistake, and that he is not employed by any of the other organizations. For that reason, she believes the case should be dropped.
"It's ridiculous," Cartee said. "It is beyond ridiculous."
Cartee became familiar with Byars during his initial conviction as a sex offender in 2008 because her son attended high school with Byars and implored her to help because of the taunts of "rapist" and "pedophile" that were trailing him at school. She believes the accusations are coming from someone upset by his success in advancing the bill.
"It's clearly somebody just being vindictive," she said. "I'm sure that's what it is. You don't do this for someone just because they didn't provide an email address." Indeed, most who were party to the mistaken lobbyist registration immediately recognized it as an innocent error.
The lobbyist for the Network of Iowa Christian Home Educators (known as NICHE) was alerted to Byars' registration last month and contacted him to figure out what was going on. Byars explained his confusion and promptly removed himself as a lobbyist for all three groups. Within days, Iowa House clerks purged him from the lobbyist database altogether.
"I think everybody was very helpful and cooperative, including Mr. Byars, to get it cleared up," said William Gustoff, the NICHE lobbyist. Next up in the criminal case is a May 2 arraignment in which Byars and Cartee will receive more information about the charges against him.
Byars' bill, meanwhile, is still alive in the Legislature and perhaps on track for passage. House Public Safety Chairman Clel Baudler gave it his personal endorsement Tuesday, while cautioning that he's not heard whether leadership intends to bring it up for floor debate.
"I think it's something that is politically sensitive but needed," said Baudler, a retired state trooper. ..Source.. by Jason Noble