Fee for accessing public-health emails increases to almost $10,000

Gov. Kim Reynolds updates Iowans on the COVID-19 outbreak on March 13, 2020 at the state emergency operations center. State Epidemiologist Caitlin Pedati and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg are also pictured. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The Iowa Department of Public Health says “a typo” caused the agency to misstate the fee it intends to charge before considering whether it will disclose a select group of emails sent to and from the state medical director.

The actual fee for access is close to $10,000, which is 23% more than what the department initially said it would charge to see the records.

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.

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 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. The department said it would consider providing public access to the records in return for a fee, adding that the cost for “the email search alone would be $8,006.07.”

The fee, the department said, was based on 152 hours of labor at a rate of $65.09 an hour, which would equal $9,893.68.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch asked the department to clarify whether the search fee of $8,006 was part of, or in addition to, the $9,893.

The agency said Wednesday that the reference to an $8,006 fee was “a typo,” and that the actual proposed fee is $9,893, which will cover the cost of a lawyer reviewing all of the emails to decide whether they should be made public.

“We do not charge for the search of the emails,” the agency said.

In response, the Capital Dispatch has asked the department to refrain from reviewing the records, at least for now, noting the possibility that the news organization could end up paying $9,893 only to have all, or some, of the records withheld as confidential.

The department’s clarification of its fee was issued on Wednesday, the same day the department fired its longtime spokesperson, Polly Carver-Kimm. The Des Moines Register reported that Carver-Kimm says she believes she was forced out for being too responsive to media requests for information.

According to the Register, Carver-Kimm said the staff of Gov. Kim Reynolds has required most media requests, including routine public-records requests, to be routed through their office. “I have never had something like that happen before in any of the administrations I’ve worked for,” she told the Register.

“I am embarrassed and saddened by the way the media has been treated during COVID,” she wrote in an email to the newspaper. “You are not receiving timely answers and you are getting scripted talking points when you do get an answer.”

IDPH spokeswoman Amy McCoy, who doesn’t acknowledge or respond to some media requests for information, said in a written statement that the department has “gone above and beyond to provide up-to-date and comprehensive information throughout the pandemic.” She said the agency values the role that the “media plays in the state’s efforts to get information to the public, and intend to continue a strong partnership.”

In May, Reynolds said the state would not routinely volunteer information about COVID-19 outbreaks in Iowa’s meatpacking plants, and would instead rely on the media to first request the information.

“I trust the media to do their job and continue to ask the questions,” the governor said. “We’re being as transparent as we can in providing Iowans with about as much information as we can … The media will do their part, and we’ll do ours.”