Iowa Workforce Development director subject of new open-records complaint

By: - July 13, 2021 4:12 pm

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

The Iowa Capital Dispatch has filed a formal complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board over Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend’s handling of public records requests.

The news organization’s complaint centers on two separate requests for public records made with the agency in late April.

The first, made on April 29, was for all of the exhibits filed in an unemployment case involving an Iowa county attorney. IWD provided 17 pages of records, stating twice that those were all of the exhibits in the case. The Capital Dispatch questioned that, noting a judge’s ruling that referenced at least 65 exhibits. On May 26, without explanation, the agency turned over an additional 380 pages of records.

In its complaint, the Capital Dispatch alleges IWD violated the law in two respects: by failing to turn over the requested records within the statutory timeframe, and by falsely claiming the 17 pages initially provided constituted all of the requested records.

The second set of records referenced in the complaint constitute emails and text messages sent to and from Townsend. On April 29, the Capital Dispatch requested an interview with 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 they had taken any steps to preserve the requested records.

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

In its complaint, the Capital Dispatch says IWD violated the law by failing to preserve the requested records as asked, and by attempting to delegate to Verizon the responsibility for turning over Townsend’s text messages.

Last year, the Capital Dispatch filed a complaint with IPIB about the public-access policies of IWD. Like other state agencies, IWD was requiring individuals who posed a question or requested a document to submit their request for information in writing and send it through an online portal that utilizes a brand of software called NextRequest.

Citing that policy, IWD refused to consider a record request from the Capital Dispatch and refused to answer written, emailed questions. When the Capital Dispatch objected to IWD’s policy, citing a state law and the attorney general’s opinion that record requests need not be put in writing, let alone delivered through an online portal, IWD attorney Nicholas Olivencia responded, “I am confident in the process IWD has, and that it is lawful and meets the legal requirements.”

IPIB Executive Director Margaret Johnson then sent a letter to all state agencies and departments, reminding them that even if they used special software to process requests for information, they still were obligated to comply with Iowa law. IWD subsequently changed its policy.

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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.

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