Access to public health official’s emails will cost at least $8,000

Iowa State Epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Pedati, left, speaks at a news conference on March 25, 2020, accompanied by Gov. Kim Reynolds. (Iowa Capital Dispatch photo)

The Iowa Department of Public Health is asking for at least $8,000 to publicly disclose two months’ worth of emails between the state medical director and a select group of other state officials.

Last month, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported that emails obtained from a federal agency show that the state medical director, Dr. Caitlin Pedati, declined an April offer of assistance from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with regard to COVID-19 outbreaks in Iowa’s meatpacking plants.

But the available records give no indication as to why Pedati made that decision or whether she ultimately accepted the CDC’s offer of assistance.

When the Iowa Department of Public Health didn’t respond to questions on the matter, the Iowa Capital Dispatch requested access to all written communications that Pedati would have sent to, or received from, either the CDC, the top two administrators at the IDPH, or the governor’s office during April and May.

In response to that request, the department indicated that during those two months, Pedati sent or received 9,340 emails relevant to the request. More than half of those involved email exchanges with the governor’s office.

The department said it would consider providing public access to the records in return for a fee. The cost for “the email search alone would be $8,006.07,” the department told the Capital Dispatch. It also said the news organization would be billed for 152 hours of labor to produce the records, at a rate of $65.09 an hour, or $9,893.68 total.

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

The Iowa Capital Dispatch has asked the department to clarify whether the $9,893 fee would be in addition to the proposed $8,006 fee for the “email search alone.” As with other state agencies, IDPH’s policy is to charge fees for both the “retrieval” of emails and for the subsequent “review” of those emails to determine whether the information they contain should be disclosed or withheld.

“This is further evidence that the ability to charge for retrieving public records seems to be a way for officials to price these beyond the reach of Iowans,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. “That’s quite disturbing, because the people of this state deserve to know more about the decisions state health officials were making, or not making, in the midst of the COVID crisis.”

The department did not say what fees, if any, would be charged for the non-email communications to and from Pedati.

According to the department, Pedati’s email exchanges with Gerd Clabaugh, then the director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, totaled 921 in April and May. By comparison, Pedati had 5,264 email exchanges with the governor or her staff during that same period.