Polk County fights to keep records secret, citing ‘morbid curiosity’ of those who seek access

By: - January 22, 2021 3:56 pm

This West Des Moines day care center was among thousands of Polk County properties owned by people and companies whose real estate holdings weren’t disclosed through a search on the county assessor’s website. For nearly five years, the assessor has fought to keep secret its list of property owners who have been granted an extra level of privacy on the assessor’s website. (Photo by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A legal battle over public access to a secret list of property owners maintained by Polk County is about to enter its fifth year, with county officials arguing that disclosure would only serve to satisfy “whatever morbid curiosity there is in the information.”

Final written briefs in the case were recently submitted to the Iowa Supreme Court. Justices are poised to settle the long-running dispute between two taxpayer-funded agencies — the Polk County Assessor’s Office and the Iowa Public Information Board.

At issue is Polk County Assessor Randy Ripperger’s long-standing practice of pulling the names of certain property owners from his office’s online search engine. The search engine is commonly used by the public to determine what properties are owned by individuals and corporations. Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter Clark Kauffman, then with the Des Moines Register, first discussed this practice with Ripperger in March 2017.

Ripperger subsequently denied Kauffman’s request for a list of the property owners whose names were pulled from the search engine. Ripperger said he had promised those entities their names would be kept confidential.

Kauffman filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board, arguing the information should be made public. The complaint said the county’s actions made it impossible for voters to identify land owned by politicians; for potential renters to research landlords’ properties; and for civic leaders to check on private developers’ real estate holdings.

An administrative law judge ruled the list of property owners who were granted that extra level of privacy was a public record. The county appealed that ruling to district court, where a judge ruled the information should be made public. The county appealed that ruling to the Iowa Supreme Court, which has yet to hear oral arguments in the case.

In its final written arguments to the court, the county says the public information board didn’t adequately investigate the matter. The board interviewed no one at the assessor’s office and issued no subpoenas, all out of an acknowledged desire to avoid being confrontational, the county asserts.

“Ironically, the board’s hesitancy to be adversarial during a confidential investigation did not prevent it from making a public probable-cause finding and initiating the adversarial process of a public, contested case hearing,” the county states in its brief with the court. “At no time during the board’s ‘investigation’ was anyone with personal knowledge interviewed or consulted. This is woefully inadequate.”

The county also argues the list of property owners is only being sought out of “morbid curiosity” and that “there is no public purpose” served by disclosing the information. The county says the extra level of privacy is needed to protect people — such as prosecutors, police officers, judges and victims of domestic violence — who fear for their safety and don’t want their home addresses known.

Jeffrey Noble, an assistant county attorney, testified in a previous hearing that if the county was forced to identify “the people who have tried to hide their address” it would create problems. “I think it whets the appetite of those people with OCD tendencies that want to find that information,” he testified.

For four 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 was owned by Principal Life Insurance Co. (Photo by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

In its response, the public information board notes while the county’s stated reason for letting people pull their names from the search engine is a desire to protect home addresses from disclosure, the assessor extends the same offer to investors, landlords, brokers, real estate companies and others who want to obscure their ownership of commercial properties.

As for the adequacy of its investigation, the public information board argues that “the facts in this case are not particularly complicated” in that the original request was for records the assessor acknowledged he had but insisted on keeping confidential due to promises made to the requesting parties.

During previous court proceedings, Ripperger said he removed from the assessor’s search engine only the names of individuals who either requested that step be taken or had others make the request for them.

Last year, however, the Iowa Capital Dispatch obtained a copy of the list as it existed then. It showed that in dozens of instances, property owners who never requested the extra level of privacy had their names pulled from the search engine only because a previous owner of the property had made such a request years before. In some cases, the confidentiality had been extended to three or four successive owners over the course of 14 years.

Ripperger initially denied that had occurred, but after the Capital Dispatch provided him with specific examples, he acknowledged the problem and said it had been fixed. County records showed otherwise, with properties in Des Moines, Urbandale and Ankeny still blocked from the search engine due to a past owner’s request for privacy.

Ripperger also testified that people who come to his office in person could readily obtain the addresses of all properties owned by any individual or company, regardless of whether their names had been pulled from the online search engine. But when a Capital Dispatch reporter went to Ripperger’s office and asked a clerk for a complete list of all properties owned by a particular corporation, the clerk produced a list that excluded all the parcels blocked from the search engine, saying the public wasn’t entitled to know about those properties.

Ripperger also said the public-access computer terminals inside the assessor’s office produced complete, accurate lists of property in response to all searches. After a Capital Dispatch reporter visited the office and showed Ripperger the opposite was true, a county technician confirmed the public-access terminals had for years been set up to block access to properties owned by people who requested privacy.

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

Many Iowa assessors have been 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 query last year 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.

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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.