Capital Dispatch files open-records complaint against agency

By: - January 23, 2020 7:00 am

The Iowa State Capitol (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa Capital Dispatch has filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board about a state agency’s public-access policies.

Iowa Workforce Development requires individuals who request a document to submit their request in writing and to send it through an online portal that warns them various records are confidential and obtainable only with a subpoena or special authorization.

For the past 16 years, the Iowa Attorney General’s office has advised state and local governmental agencies that “a governmental body may not require that a request must be put into writing.”

In responding to the news organization’s complaint, IWD attorney Nicholas Olivencia said, “I am confident in the process IWD has, and that it is lawful and meets the legal requirements.”

In its complaint, the Capital Dispatch alleges IWD’s policy of requiring requests to be put in writing is illegal and argues the policy of requiring those requests to be sent through an online portal that’s inaccessible to people without internet service is also illegal.

The news organization says the portal itself seems designed to discourage people from making information requests, as it includes this statement to all those who are contemplating a request for documents:

“After you have submitted your initial request to this portal you will receive an email of confirmation. You must return to your submission and attach a signed waiver and/or authorization, or any other supporting documents, i.e., subpoena.  Records are confidential and will not be released unless proper signed waiver and/or authorization is provided.”

That statement is accurate with regard to confidential records related to unemployment insurance claims, but judges’ decisions on those claims are public documents, as are thousands of other records in the department’s custody.

The Capital Dispatch filed its complaint Tuesday after orally requesting access to an administrative law judge’s decision in a tax case that prompted an Iowa charity to sue IWD last year.

Olivencia said IWD would not entertain any oral requests for the documents. He also refused to consider a written request that was sent to him by email, stating it had to be sent through the agency’s online portal.

When a Capital Dispatch reporter cited the attorney general’s advice that government agencies cannot require citizens to put their requests in writing, Olivencia replied, “This is our policy.”

After the Capital Dispatch filed its complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board, Olivencia wrote to the reporter, “Your continued threats and the manner in which you try to bully anyone you can for your purposes is your decision … You have previously appeared in our office unannounced and unexpected and demanded to review records immediately. When you are asked to follow the process followed by the hundreds and hundreds of individuals who go through the portal, you throw a tantrum in the guise of a complaint.”

On Wednesday, after the complaint was filed and the Capital Dispatch made its record request through the required portal, IWD provided access to the requested documents. The news organization was charged $25 to look at the records. No copies were requested or provided.

IWD charges $28.34 per hour for the cost of having a staffer review requested records, plus $28.34 an hour for the cost of having a staffer “supervise” the examination of the records.

Last spring, Olivencia denied a request from the Associated Press for the date that one of the agency’s bureau chiefs was removed from her position. He also declined to disclose the notice she had been given and the findings of an investigation into her conduct. According to the AP, Olivencia  didn’t cite any exemptions to the Iowa Open Records Law as the basis for his denial.

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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. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.