State agency refuses to answer questions about unemployment fraud

Iowa has fielded at least 37,000 fraudulent claims for unemployment benefits since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to state officials. (Photo: U.S. Department of Labor)

Iowa Workforce Development is not answering questions about alleged unemployment fraud in the state, and its attorneys have suggested the agency will respond only to requests for specific documents.

In April, the Iowa Capital Dispatch asked IWD for information on unemployment fraud related to identity theft. The agency refused a request for an interview with the director, Beth Townsend, but Deputy Director Ryan West answered in writing some of the questions the news organization had provided in advance of the proposed interview.

On May 4, the Capital Dispatch followed up with West by asking some of the same questions again and by asking three follow-up questions, such as how the reported 37,000 cases of fraud uncovered during the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the number of cases the year before.

The Capital Dispatch also asked for a list of any fraud cases that had led to any sort of civil or criminal court action.

West did not acknowledge or respond to those questions, nor did he acknowledge follow-up inquiries sent May 6, May 13 and May 17.

On May 19, IWD attorney David Steen wrote to the Capital Dispatch to say that “in reviewing the questions, I can’t identify anything as a request for specific records. Please let me know which records you are requesting, and I will see that this agency complies with the law in producing what is required.”

Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend updates the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference March 26, 2020. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS)

In a response sent to Steen and Townsend, the Capital Dispatch said that by treating information requests as document requests, the agency had created a Catch-22 for anyone seeking information from the agency: Since the public doesn’t have unfettered access to department records, it can’t specify for the department which of its records hold the answers to their questions.

The Capital Dispatch noted that it could issue a blanket request for all IWD documents related to fraud, but that would lead to a costly, time-consuming search through all agency emails, memos, spreadsheets and reports.

“That would place an enormous burden on the IWD staff, which is already stressed due to the unprecedented demand for unemployment claims,” the Capital Dispatch argued. “It also would cost Iowa taxpayers a fortune – assuming, of course, that IWD was to treat information requests as a basic, fundamental part of its public duties, with the cost of responding to questions absorbed by the department itself.”

The Capital Dispatch said in order to avoid that situation, it was requesting only emails and text messages sent to and by Townsend over the past 11 weeks.

The news organization also pointed out that with regard to IWD’s handling of document requests, the agency had yet to turn over a set of records the Capital Dispatch requested in April. Those records are tied to a public hearing on an unemployment case involving an Iowa prosecutor accused of inappropriate communications with an employee.

The Capital Dispatch noted that 21 calendar days had passed since the request was made. Under Iowa law, a state agency can delay disclosure if it is attempting to determine whether the records are public, but delays of that sort “shall not exceed 20 calendar days and ordinarily should not exceed 10 business days.”

Iowa Workforce Development did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said “there is nothing in the Open Records Law that prevents Iowa Workforce Development from answering these questions from Iowa Capital Dispatch. The refusal of officials to answer legitimate questions should concern the people of Iowa, because the public deserves to know the answers. Without the public being adequately informed, people will have little confidence state officials are adequately addressing problems in government agencies.”

IWD is not the only state agency to not acknowledge requests for information.

In December of last year, the Capital Dispatch asked the Iowa Department of Public Health for the latest version of its periodically updated list of all COVID-19 outbreaks in Iowa nursing homes during the pandemic.

Initially, the department said the list would be forthcoming. After numerous additional inquiries, the agency said redactions needed to be made to the list before it could be released.

After the Capital Dispatch complained to the Iowa Public Information Board, an IDPH attorney said that around the time the news organization requested the list, IDPH stopped maintaining it and so “there was no public record in existence” detailing which Iowa nursing homes had a COVID-19 outbreak. The agency’s lawyer said that under Iowa law, IDPH is not obligated to create a document in response to a record request.

At the time IDPH’s lawyers made that argument, IDPH was publishing to its own website a list of all current care-facility outbreaks, updated daily.

On March 31, four months after the Capital Dispatch made its request, IDPH provided the requested information. The data showed IDPH had retroactively reduced the number of nursing home infections it publicly reported last year due to what the agency said were miscalculations on its part.

At the state-run Iowa Veterans Home, for example, IDPH had initially reported two outbreaks that resulted in 78 infections. The newly disclosed list suggested there were only 48 infections associated with the two outbreaks.

The Capital Dispatch has asked the Iowa Public Information Board to enforce Iowa’s Open Records Law, arguing that the data on outbreaks was “requested in the immediate aftermath of the largest and deadliest surge of COVID-19 infections in Iowa, and the information was withheld by IDPH for 108 days.”

The board has yet to act on that request.

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.