Former Iowa public health spokeswoman sues state, seeks $5 million

Ousted Iowa Department of Public Health spokeswoman Polly Carver-Kimm has sued the state for "wrongful discharge." (Screenshot from Zoom news conference)

The former spokeswoman of the Iowa Department of Public Health has sued the state and Gov. Kim Reynolds, claiming she was ousted for fulfilling open records requests for reporters, which was part of her job. 

Polly Carver-Kimm, 57, who had worked in public affairs for the department since 2007, is asking the court for damages, back pay and reinstatement. In separate filings with the State Appeal Board, she seeks $5 million.

Most state employees serve “at will” and may be dismissed for any reason. Carver-Kimm resigned rather than be fired.

Carver-Kimm accuses the state, the governor and Reynolds aide Pat Garrett of “wrongful discharge” and violations of state policies of openness. She also claims the state violated her First Amendment rights, her attorney, Tom Duff, said at a Zoom news conference Thursday.

Sara Craig, Reynolds’ chief of staff, said the state will fight Carver-Kimm’s claims. “This lawsuit is without merit, and we will be working with the Iowa attorney general’s office to respond in court,” Craig said in a statement.

Carver-Kimm’s claims to the appeal board will likely be rolled into the case pending in Polk County District Court, Duff said.

Carver-Kimm claims in the lawsuit that the governor’s office had never been involved in decisions on releasing records until after the coronavirus pandemic hit Iowa in March. That month, Garrett put holds on records to be released to a reporter, and Carver-Kimm was told that all news releases had to go through the governor’s office. 

At Thursday’s news conference, Carver-Kimm said she had never seen this much involvement from a governor’s office in health department records requests. She said the result was unfair treatment of the media and a lack of openness that deprived citizens of information they needed to make their own decisions on reacting to the spread of COVID-19. 

Carver-Kimm also was concerned about the state’s use of special email addresses to coordinate emergency operations. There were questions over whether those emails should be released along with the state workers’ regular emails requested by reporters.

Carver-Kimm released both sets of emails after consulting with the attorney general’s office in one case. But when later requests were made, the emergency system emails weren’t released, and Carver-Kimm’s emailed questions to the attorney general’s office weren’t answered, the lawsuit says. 

The incident was consistent with a pattern in which reporters’ questions were either ignored or answered in carefully scripted talking points, Carver-Kimm said. “The media was not treated fairly,” she said. 

Reynolds has consistently praised her own administration as “transparent” and “accountable.” The state has a website that reports data related to COVID-19, but it has had multiple glitches and omissions. Carver-Kimm said she lost her power to update the site. 

Over the months, Carver-Kimm’s duties regarding public records were steadily reduced, Duff said. The governor’s office and Iowa Department of Public Health lobbyist Amy McCoy took over inquiries. Both have repeatedly failed to respond to many media requests. 

“I am something of a bulldog for public access to public records in a timely and low-cost manner,” Carver-Kimm said at Thursday’s news conference. “If there was a more open flow, it would help the public.” 

At times, the public health department has agreed to release records at a high price. The department tried to charge Iowa Capital Dispatch nearly $10,000 for a group of emails, adding 23% to the original cost due to “a typo.” The emails had to do with a decision by State Epidemiologist Caitlin Pedati to turn down the federal government’s offer to help the state respond to COVID-19 outbreaks at Iowa meatpacking plants that may have caused the spikes in the towns where they are located. 

The Iowa open records law, Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code, allows the government to charge a “reasonable fee” based on “actual costs” but doesn’t detail how to compute them. 

The breaking point for Carver-Kimm appeared to be a request from the Des Moines Register for abortion data, which had been routinely released in the past, according to the lawsuit. When she released the data, the Register ran a story in July noting a 25% increase in abortion since Reynolds decided the state would no longer participate in a federally funded family planning program, the lawsuit notes.

The “unflattering story,” which came as Reynolds opposed government funding of Planned Parenthood, angered the governor’s staff, Carver-Kimm said.

The health department director at the time, Gerd Claubaugh, later told Carver-Kimm to resign or be fired due to a “restructuring,” the lawsuit contends. She initially chose to be fired, then changed her mind when she was told she would lose accrued vacation if she did that. She resigned July 15.

Duff noted that the restructuring the department discussed appears to have only affected Carver-Kimm. “That is suspicious,” he added.

Claybaugh, 58, retired in July. Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter, who had been a mainstay at the state’s COVID news conferences, hasn’t appeared at the sessions in recent weeks, though Pedati has. Reynolds appointed Kelly Garcia, director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, to temporarily run the health department.