Governor’s office doesn’t respond to question about auction of Terrace Hill dinner

By: - May 5, 2021 4:44 pm

Terrace Hill is the Iowa governor’s mansion. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The office of Gov. Kim Reynolds has not responded to three written requests for information related to the auction of a dinner at the governor’s official residence to benefit a Christian school.

The Iowa Department of Public Health, meanwhile, has indicated it is still unable to respond to an April 3 request for one day’s worth of emails to and from its public information officer. The issues are examples of an ongoing struggle Iowa journalists have encountered with the Reynolds administration’s response to requests for public information.

Iowa law doesn’t specify when public records must be turned over in response to a request, but it does say agencies can take up to 20 simply to determine whether the information is public or should be kept confidential. After that, access to a public document can still take weeks, or even months, although the Iowa attorney general’s office says once government records are deemed public, they “should be provided as promptly as is reasonably feasible.”

Did the governor seek legal advice?

The information on the auction is tied to the 2021 fundraising campaign of the Des Moines Christian School, which last month solicited bids for a dinner-for-eight package with the governor and her husband at their official residence, Terrace Hill. The winner of the auction was not named on the school’s website, but he or she appears to have bid $30,100 for the dinner.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch’s first request for information on the auction was made April 8 when the news organization contacted Reynolds’ communications director, Pat Garrett, asking for information about the current auction to benefit Des Moines Christian School and the use of Terrace Hill for a dinner for eight with the governor and her husband.

The request asked for a copy of any legal opinion the governor’s office received that says the activity is allowable. It also asked for “some of the history of Iowa governors offering dinner at the residence to the highest bidder in an auction.”

Garrett never responded to that email. On April 14, the Capital Dispatch wrote again to Garrett, advising him that he is “obligated to respond to requests for documents,” and repeating the request for “any legal opinions the governor’s office has that pertain to auctions or donations of the governor’s time and/or use of Terrace Hill.”

Garrett did not respond. On April 30, the Capital Dispatch sent him a third message reiterating the request. He did not respond.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch asked Reynolds at her Wednesday press conference about the auction. “There’s no state dollars that go into that,” Reynolds said. “This is something that’s been done by governors for years. And it’s a way for us to support organizations. We do it for the heart association, we do it for leukemia, we do it for multiple different groups.”

Asked whether her office had obtained a legal opinion approving of the auction for the school, she said only, “We have the authority to do that.” She didn’t respond when asked who had granted that authority.

After the governor spoke, Garrett defended his lack of response to the three requests from the Capital Dispatch. “I’m going to let you know that this team is spending a lot of time answering as many questions as possible from the media on a number of issues,” he said. “You can imagine how many inquiries I get on any given day … I will ask, now, my team, for a copy of that and get it to you.”

Later that day, he said he forwarded the Capital Dispatch’s request to the governor’s legal counsel.

In the past, Reynolds and her immediate predecessor, fellow Republican Terry Branstad, have auctioned off meals or some of their time to benefit other nonprofit organizations or charities. In at least two cases, the auctions have included access to Terrace Hill or a special tour of the Iowa Capitol building, both of which are maintained at least in part at taxpayer expense.

The school fundraiser is not the first time an Iowa governor has used his or her office to raise money for a private, faith-based entity. In 2016, Sacred Heart School in Boone, which is run by the Catholic church, was reported to have auctioned off a private dinner for four with then-Gov. Terry Branstad and his wife at the mansion.

IDPH emails were requested April 3

Last August, after Iowa Falls Times-Citizen Editor Sara Konrad Baranowski publicly expressed frustration over the Iowa Department of Public Health’s lack of response to her questions, Reynolds said, “We are accessible and we want to get back to those that have questions in a timely manner, and so if that’s not happening then we’ll do everything we can to bump that out.”

Konrad Baranowski had sent 10 emails and left two phone messages over 20 days with a public health department spokesperson and, she wrote on Twitter, had still not received answers to her questions.

The Capital Dispatch has had a series of issues with IDPH failing to respond to questions or requests for documents.

On April 3, the Iowa Capital Dispatch asked the Iowa Department of Public Health for access to all emails received by or sent to the agency’s public information officer on April 2. The news organization also asked for copies of all text messages between the public information officer and any member of the governor’s staff that were sent or received on April 2.

The request made note of the fact that deleted emails typically are backed up and then archived only for a limited time, and asked that the department take immediate steps to preserve the requested emails. The news organization asked IDPH to confirm by April 7 that steps had been taken to preserve the records.

On April 22, IDPH sent the Capital Dispatch an unsigned message saying, “Your records request with the Iowa Department of Public Health is still in progress. We are experiencing a high volume of requests at this time and are working through requests as they were received.” The emails and texts have yet to be disclosed.

In January, the Iowa Capital Dispatch asked IDPH for information detailing the vaccine refusal and acceptance rates among workers in each of the state’s 440 privately run nursing homes.

After a series of email exchanges, a department spokeswoman said the information was not contained in “a report that currently exists,” but said she would work with her team to “pull something in.”

The information was never provided, but at a March 20 press conference, Reynolds said the overall vaccine-acceptance rate among Iowa’s nursing home workers was 60%. At that same event, however, IDPH Director Kelly Garcia sad no one in state government collected that sort of information.

When reporters asked how the governor had determined there was a 60% vaccine acceptance rate in the homes, Garrett said the information came from a private partnership of Iowa’s long-term care providers and pharmacies. He said the information had been relayed by telephone. He did not respond when asked precisely who provided the information, and who had received it.

In January, Reynolds had indicated she was willing to commit to doing a better job of responding to information requests. “We want to be transparent and open,” she told reporters. “We’ve just had a lot on our plate this year. So, you know, I’m not I’m not trying to make excuses … I have no issue with making that commitment.”

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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.