Uncovering Polk County’s secret list of property owners

By: - January 7, 2020 6:30 am

For years, the name of the owner of this $6.7 million data center in Johnston was blocked from the search engine on the Polk County assessor’s website. The center is owned by Principal Life Insurance Co. (Photo by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A corporation owned by Bonnie Netteland and her family owns 27 Polk County properties – child-care centers, apartment buildings and rental homes – worth $8.2 million.

But if anyone was to search the county assessor’s website for all properties owned by Netteland Family Holdings, they’d be informed there are just seven such properties with a total value of $2.7 million.

The other properties are among thousands the assessor’s office has blocked from disclosure through the website’s owner-name search engine. They include single-family homes; narrow, tiny, undeveloped strips of land; an $8.8 million housing development in Bondurant; and a $6.7 million data center owned by Principal Life Insurance Co.

For almost three years, the assessor has been battling to keep secret its list of these properties and their owners. In July, an administrative law judge ruled the information was a public record, but the county has appealed that finding to Iowa District Court in an effort to keep the list confidential.

Iowa Capital Dispatch recently acquired a copy of the list, which sheds new light on the veracity of claims made by the assessor’s office in its fight to suppress the information:

  • Polk County Assessor Randy Ripperger has maintained that only property owners who have requested it have been granted the extra level of online privacy that blocks their names on the search engine. The confidential list shows that’s not the case. In dozens of instances, property owners who requested privacy have sold their holdings to others, and the names of those new owners – who never requested privacy – have also been blocked from disclosure. In some cases, these properties have been sold two or three times with the ownership remaining obscured on the website.
  • Ripperger has testified under oath that people who come to his office can readily obtain the addresses of all properties owned by people whose names have been pulled from the search engine. In fact, that’s not the case. When a Capital Dispatch reporter went to the assessor’s office and asked a clerk for a list of all properties owned by Netteland Family Holdings, the clerk twice asked why the information was being requested and then produced a list of only the seven properties listed on the public version of the website. She said she had no way of disclosing properties pulled from the public website’s search engine. “(The website) works the same inside here as it does outside,” she said. “If they have their name taken off, we can’t search by their name.”
  • Ripperger has also testified that the public-access computer terminals in his office produce complete, accurate lists of property in response to owner-name searches. After the Capital Dispatch reporter showed Ripperger the terminals were only capable of producing the abbreviated lists of property, he consulted with a technician who said that when the county established the public-access terminals “years ago” they were set up to route people to the public version of the website that excludes the properties whose ownership is obscured.
  • County officials have argued that the extra level of privacy is available to all who ask for it and is primarily designed to protect individuals – such as lawyers, police officers and judges – who fear for their safety and don’t want their home address known. But the records show how that same level of privacy is enjoyed by investors, landlords, insurance companies, banks, brokers, developers, real estate companies and the owners of day-care centers.

During two recent visits to the assessor’s office, a Capital Dispatch reporter was eventually able to obtain complete lists of property owned by certain entities, but only after telling the staff he knew there were additional properties omitted from the search results they and the public-access terminals were producing. The average citizen, who doesn’t have access to the confidential list of properties, would have no way of making that argument.

Ripperger acknowledged that he misunderstood how his public-access terminals work, but said “very few people use these computers anyway,” preferring instead to use the public website they can access from home. That’s the same website that produces false or incomplete responses to searches for thousands of property owners.   

When asked why the initial searches conducted by his staff also produced misleading results, Ripperger said the clerk who was working at the front counter in the office misunderstood his office’s policy and thought the complete lists of property couldn’t be shared with the public.

Because thousands of real-estate records are obscured on the public website and on the public-access terminals, the results of every search for every potential property owner in Polk County are suspect: There’s no way to know whether the results generated by any search are false, incomplete or entirely accurate.

That makes it impossible for potential renters to use the assessor’s site to research landlords’ properties; for businesses to locate customers or competitors; for voters to identify land owned by politicians; and for civic leaders to check on developers’ real estate holdings.

Many Iowa assessors are closely following Polk County’s fight to keep secret its list of property owners who have opted out of online disclosure. Of the 73 city or county assessors who responded to a recent query about their policies, 13 said they currently have at least one property owner’s holdings concealed online from the public. The remaining 60 indicated all ownership records in their jurisdiction are equally accessible.

Privacy extends to those who haven’t requested it

Polk County’s practice of blocking web-based searches for certain property owners dates back to early 1999. Ripperger has consistently maintained the service is provided only to those who request it, either directly or through an intermediary. He has also said that once such a house or business is sold, full public access to ownership information is restored.

Until recently, there was no way to test the accuracy of that claim because the assessor was keeping secret its list of properties pulled from the search engine. But a spot-check of the 4,500 properties and property owners on the list obtained by the Capital Dispatch suggests that after the county disables the name-search function at the request of a property owner, public access is not always restored, even after several years have passed, and even after the property has changed hands two or three times.

This West Des Moines daycare center is among thousands of Polk County properties owned by people and corporations whose names are blocked from the county assessor’s website and public-access terminals, For three years, the assessor has fought to keep secret this list of properties and their owners. (Photo by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

For example, in October 2008, Deb Gallagher had her home in Grimes pulled from the county’s owner-name search engine. The property was twice sold after that, but Gallagher’s 2008 request kept both buyers’ ownership obscured from the assessor’s website and public-access terminals.

The same is true of an Ankeny lot purchased by Dean Godwin. In April 2000, he had his ownership of the land pulled from the search engine. Although the home has been sold three times since then, the new owners’ names were blocked because of Godwin’s request 20 years ago.

Six years ago, the county blocked searches of Rebekah Rippey’s name as owner of an Urbandale home. Since then, the house has been sold three times, but Rippey’s 2013 request for privacy kept the buyers’ ownership obscured on the county website.

Last year, Perfect Fit Real Estate Solutions sold five homes to individuals whose ownership remained obscured only because Perfect Fit asked for its name to be pulled from the assessor’s search engine. The same thing has happened with homes sold by OWB Properties, real estate broker Neil Timmins, and investors Ryan and Jessica Parlee.

It’s not clear how many Polk County properties have had their ownership obscured only because a previous owner requested that level of privacy. When first asked about this, Ripperger maintained it wasn’t happening and said the county was routinely updating its records, perhaps monthly, to restore public access to the information once a property is sold.

After the Capital Dispatch told him of homes that had changed hands two or three times with the ownership information still blocked, Ripperger looked into the matter. On Dec. 31, he acknowledged that for at least the past few years, the county failed to restore public access to ownership information on properties after they were sold. He attributed the error to a “misunderstanding” on the part of other county officials who froze the list of properties in 2017.

Ripperger says the problem has been corrected and his office has restored public access to owner information on all of the affected properties.  County records show otherwise. Homes in Des Moines, Urbandale and Ankeny remain blocked from the search engine because of previous owners’ requests for privacy. Public access to the information should have been restored up to 14 years ago.

The records also show the list of properties with obscured ownership was never frozen in 2017, as Ripperger says. At least 800 properties and owners were added to the list in 2018 and 2019.

When asked about all of this, Ripperger said, “Don’t know. There’s pending litigation on that list so I’m not going to comment on that.”

He said that even though his public-access terminals and, initially, his staff provided only incomplete property listings in response to requests by the Capital Dispatch, the system of disclosure works as intended.

“It works, it works,” he said. “It worked for you when you came in here the other day and it worked right now … You got what you came in for.”

Assessor has a ‘big problem’ with disclosure of secret list

The legal dispute over the county’s efforts to conceal property-ownership information dates back to 2017, when Capital Dispatch reporter Clark Kauffman, then with the Des Moines Register, asked Ripperger for the list of entities whose names were blocked from the search engine.

Ripperger refused, saying he had promised those individuals and corporations their names would be kept confidential.

Kauffman filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board, which last year concluded there was probable cause to believe the assessor was violating the state’s Open Records Law by keeping the list secret. Last March, there was a formal hearing on the matter before Administrative Law Judge Kristine Dreckman.

At the hearing, a Des Moines police sergeant, a former Supreme Court justice and an assistant Polk County attorney testified that requests to have their names pulled from the search engine were made out of concern for their personal safety. Last July, Judge Dreckman ruled that Ripperger was acting illegally by denying access to the list of property owners’ names.

Faced with the prospect of IPIB making the list public, Ripperger asked the board to delay taking action while he appealed the ruling to Iowa District Court. The board agreed, and three weeks ago, Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, whose name appears on the assessor’s list, filed a court petition arguing that IPIB’s actions and Dreckman’s findings were “the product of reasoning that is so illogical as to render it wholly irrational.” The board has yet to respond to that filing.

Ripperger says he has a “big problem” with a Capital Dispatch reporter obtaining a copy of the list while the issue of access is still being litigated. He asked the reporter three times to identify his source for the list.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the council has two fundamental issues with the assessor’s actions.

Randy Evans
Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Freedom of Information Council.)

The first issue, he said, is that all real estate ownership records should be accessible to everyone, “and that includes people who walk into the county assessor’s office and make a request for documents, and that includes people who sit at a computer and submit the very same request on the assessor’s website.

“The second issue is that the public records law does not allow a government official to take matters into their own hands and make a public record confidential.” 

What it all comes down to is this: It’s public information.’

Bonnie Netteland, whose family owns the 20 properties pulled from the assessor’s search engine, says “it isn’t anybody’s business” what property her family owns.

“We just don’t want to be bothered,” she explained, adding that while they hadn’t been bothered before they had their names blocked from online property searches, there was always the possibility that might happen.

“There isn’t that much bad stuff going on in Des Moines but it’s just safer this way,” she said. “You know, some people have a lot, and sometimes other people don’t like the people who have a lot. It’s better to just keep things private, and it’s none of their business anyway.”

Nathan Kolbet, who owns several Des Moines-area rental homes, says he pulled his name off the county’s search engine to prevent disgruntled renters from finding out what other properties he owns or where he lives.

“If you get a crazy renter and you make them mad, they might not just mess up that property but mess up your other properties, as well,” he said. “At least this way they don’t know where your other properties are.”

Polk County’s practice of pulling names from the assessor’s search engine also has an impact on the public website run by the county treasurer’s office, which utilizes the same database. Treasurer Mary Maloney says that when property owners who have asked to have their names pulled from the assessor’s search engine go to the treasurer’s site to pay their taxes, the system can’t locate their property.

“So then they call and complain to us that they want to pay their taxes and they can’t,” Maloney said, laughing.

Maloney says she understands people’s desire for privacy but says there are ways for property owners to protect themselves from potential stalkers and harassers without the county making public information harder to access.

“What it all comes down to is this: It’s public information,” she said. “I’ve always said to people, ‘If you want to make it hard for others to know what you own, just put (your home) in the name of a trust or something.’ ”

Next month, the fight for public access to the county’s list of property owners will enter its fourth year. Taxpayers are footing the bill for both sides of the legal dispute since Polk County and the Iowa Public Information Board are both public entities.

The dispute could be decided by one of the judges working in central Iowa’s Fifth Judicial District – many of whom have taken advantage of the county’s policy and had their names pulled from the assessor’s search engine. 

Why we’re not publishing the list

The list of properties the Polk County Assessor’s Office is keeping secret includes thousands of properties whose ownership is obscured on the assessor’s website.

Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter Clark Kauffman first sought a copy of the list in 2017, while working at the Des Moines Register. He testified last March that while the list included people who had safety concerns about online access to their home address, the added level of privacy was extended not just to homeowners but to businesses that wanted to obscure their ownership of certain real estate holdings.

“So it wouldn’t just be individuals who are trying to keep their home address secret, it could be landlords or slumlords, it could be developers, it could be people who have commercial or investment interest in the property,” he testified. “That goes far beyond these folks who arguably might have a privacy interest in keeping their home address information harder to access.”

Although Capital Dispatch now has a copy of the list, the news organization is not publishing the raw data, in part because it includes both homeowners and businesses.

Also, it’s now clear the list excludes the names of entities whose names were blocked from the assessor’s search engine without them ever requesting it, and includes the names of people who sold their properties years ago and should have been pulled from the list.

In addition, the list is a snapshot in time that reflects only the properties whose ownership was obscured when the list was generated. In 2017, it included roughly 2,100 properties owned by 3,500 people or companies, according to the assessor. Today, there are at least 800 additional names or properties on the list.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.