State agency falsely claimed to have complied with public-records request

After taking one month to respond to a request for documents, Iowa Workforce Development recently turned over what it falsely claimed were all of the requested records. (Photo illustration by Clark Kauffman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

After taking one month to respond to a request for public documents, Iowa Workforce Development recently turned over what it falsely claimed were all of the requested records.

As part of that same process, the state agency mistakenly disclosed the personal tax returns of a Des Moines couple that runs an art studio.

The agency’s initial disclosure of 13 pages of exhibits in an unemployment case represents less than 4% of the requested documents. IWD turned over the documents in full Wednesday after the Iowa Capital Dispatch questioned the agency’s compliance with the state Open Records Law.

On April 29, the Capital Dispatch asked IWD for access to “all of the exhibits” in an unemployment case involving a Wapello County prosecutor accused of sending inappropriate text messages to a subordinate. The Capital Dispatch provided IWD with the name of the case as well as the IWD-assigned case number.

Two weeks later, on May 13, the Capital Dispatch asked the department’s spokeswoman, Molly Elder, for an update the status of the request. She did not respond. On May 17, the Capital Dispatch asked again. In response, Elder said, “We will get back to you as soon as we can.”

Two days later, IWD attorney David Steen contacted the Capital Dispatch to say he couldn’t “identify anything as a request for specific records. Please let me know which records you are requesting.” The Capital Dispatch asked again for “all of the exhibits” in the Wapello County case.

On May 21, Steen sent the Capital Dispatch 17 pages of records, indicating those were all of the exhibits in the case. The 17 pages included four pages of documents unrelated to the Wapello County case and included the personal tax return of a Des Moines couple and the profit-and-loss statement of their business, an art studio. The pages also included odd redactions, blacking out the address and phone number of the Wapello County Attorney’s Office in the letterhead of the prosecutor’s official stationery.

The Capital Dispatch wrote back, asking Steen to confirm all of the case exhibits were included in the 17 pages he had sent. “That’s correct,” Steen replied, “these are all of the exhibits, pulled directly from our appeals bureau file.”

The Capital Dispatch reporter wrote back, pointing out that other public documents indicated the judge in the case accepted 27 separate exhibits from the worker in the case, plus 38 exhibits submitted by the employer. “I don’t see how 65 separate exhibits could be contained within these 17 pages,” the reporter said.

Steen did not respond. The reporter contacted Steen again, saying, “Would you agree that I don’t have all the exhibits, or is there something I am missing here? Are you looking further into this?”

On May 24, Steen said he would look into the matter. On Wednesday, Steen provided 395 pages of exhibits from the case. He did not respond when asked why the agency had previously provided only 17 pages of documents, but acknowledged the tax return of the Des Moines couple was provided in error.

IWD recently assured Iowans their personal information on file with the agency was secure. IWD has said that over the past year it has been dealing with tens of thousands of fraudulent unemployment claims tied to identity theft, but that the agency itself isn’t responsible for the theft.

In a separate but related matter, the Capital Dispatch has asked Steen on six separate occasions to confirm that IWD and its director, Beth Townsend, have taken steps to preserve another set of records the news organization requested on May 19: the recent emails and work-related text messages of Townsend.

Steen has not responded to any of those inquiries, but has indicated the agency is working on a fee estimate for providing access to whatever emails and texts might still exist.

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.