IWD director wants $3,846 for her emails, and says her text messages have been purged

Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend at a March 2020 news conference. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS)

After declining requests for an interview, the director of Iowa Workforce Development has responded to a request for her emails with an invoice for $3,846, while stating that her requested text messages have all been purged.

The action comes just two weeks after IWD falsely claimed to have turned over another set of documents that were requested under the state’s Open Records Law, and after it mistakenly disclosed the personal tax returns of a Des Moines couple.

On April 29, the Iowa Capital Dispatch requested an interview with governor-appointed IWD Director Beth Townsend or a designee about unemployment fraud in Iowa. As a courtesy, the news organization provided a list of four questions it wanted to discuss.

The agency’s deputy director denied the interview request, provided answers to only some of the questions asked, and then didn’t respond to follow-up questions.

An IWD attorney eventually wrote to the Capital Dispatch, saying he could not identify anything in the Capital Dispatch’s communications “as a request for specific records.” (State agencies are not required by law to answer questions from the press or public, but they are required to respond to document requests.)

In response, the Capital Dispatch asked Townsend for access to all of her emails and all of her work-related text messages for an 11-week period this year when unemployment-fraud information was being sought by various Iowa news outlets.

In its written request, the Capital Dispatch also asked Townsend and IWD attorney David Steen to “please take immediate steps to preserve all of the requested records, text messages included,” and to detail within two days “precisely what steps the two of you have taken to preserve these records.”

Neither Townsend nor Steen responded to six subsequent inquiries about whether the records were being preserved.

Last week, Steen sent the Capital Dispatch a letter, indicating IWD had contacted Verizon, Townsend’s phone-service provider, rather than Townsend herself, to obtain access to her text messages. Verizon informed IWD that it only maintains text-message content for five to seven days before the records are purged, Steen said.

Steen did not explain why Townsend — the custodian of the records, and the person to whom the Capital Dispatch sent its document request — didn’t access the texts directly from her own phone. In a letter sent to Townsend, the Capital Dispatch argued that Verizon’s inability to access her text messages doesn’t relieve her of the legal obligation to turn over any messages she still has on her phone.

As for Townsend’s emails, Steen said the news organization would have to pay $3,846 to see them.

That estimate includes a $1,331 “agency record fee,” which appears to represent a 25-cent, per-page fee for copies of the emails. The Capital Dispatch specifically requested “access to, but not necessarily copies of,” the documents. The estimate also includes a $2,515 fee for 88 hours of labor, at $28.34 an hour.

The Capital Dispatch has not yet agreed to pay those fees.

In May, after taking one month to respond to an earlier request for public documents, Steen provide the Capital Dispatch with 17 pages of documents, falsely claiming those were all of the requested records. The agency turned over the full set of 395 pages only after the Capital Dispatch twice questioned the agency’s response. Steen did not respond when asked why he had initially claimed the 17 pages represented all of the requested records.

As part of that same record request, Steen mistakenly sent the Capital Dispatch the personal tax returns of a Des Moines couple, along with the profit-and-loss statement for their art studio. Those records had no relation to the documents sought by the Capital Dispatch.

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.