State board: Reporter’s complaint against Iowa Workforce Development ‘has merit’

By: - September 16, 2021 5:32 pm

A state board has ruled that a news organization’s open records complaint against Iowa Workforce Development ‘has merit.’ (Photo by Priscilla Du Preez via Unsplash)

Iowa Capital Dispatch’s claim that Iowa Workforce Development violated the state’s open records law while failing to turn over its director’s text messages has “merit,” a state panel decided Thursday.

The Iowa Public Information Board ruled that the news organization’s formal complaint against the state agency is “legally sufficient” and “has merit,” in addition to being in the board’s jurisdiction.

Clark Kauffman, deputy editor of the Capital Dispatch, filed the complaint over his request for Director Beth Townsend’s emails and text messages. The board now will negotiate an informal settlement between the agency and Kauffman.

Beth Townsend is director of Iowa Workforce Development. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS)

When public information board staff members asked Iowa Workforce Development for its policy on handling records requests, they didn’t get a clear answer, state lawyers said. The agency provided a copy of the State Records Manual, which explains record management but not how to handle open records requests.

Kauffman’s complaint centered on two central information requests.

On April 29, he requested all exhibits filed in an unemployment case involving an Iowa county attorney. Iowa Workforce Development provided 17 pages of records, and twice indicated that was all the documentation the agency had. When Kauffman noted a judge had referred to at least 65 exhibits, the agency turned over an additional 380 pages of records.

Kauffman contends the state violated the law by failing to turn over the records and by falsely claiming 17 pages of records were all the state had on the subject.

News organization seeks emails, texts

In a second situation, Kauffman was denied an interview with Townsend about unemployment fraud. He requested her emails and text messages for an 11-week period.

Kauffman asked Iowa Workforce Development to “take immediate steps” to preserve the records. The state didn’t respond to seven requests from Kauffman for information on how the state intended to preserve the records.

The agency referred Kauffman to Verizon for the text messages and said the emails would cost $3,846 to view. 

On Thursday, Iowa Workforce Development lawyer David Steen repeated the agency’s stance that the records were kept in two separate sections, leading to an oversight. The agency has changed its procedures to fix the problem, he contended. 

“We had absolutely no incentive to withhold documents from him in that matter,” Steen told board members at their meeting.

Steen said the agency had not had a request for text messages before. Agency representatives thought Verizon would have more thorough records than the phone Townsend uses for state business. 

Verizon told Iowa Workforce Development it keeps the content of text messages for five to seven days before deleting it, but keeps records of the time and parties involved in a text longer.

Public information board members Monica McHugh of Zwingle and E.J. Giovannetti of Urbandale both said public officials should be retaining emails and texts for public view. Giovannetti is former mayor of Urbandale and a former Polk County supervisor. 

“There is something there,” McHugh said. “I would think that is something that the agency would provide. This one concerns me that after five days, there’s no documentation … This one greatly bothers me.”

Giovannetti agreed. “State business being conducted, regardless of whether it’s email or text, ought to be retained for more than five to seven days. If Verizon doesn’t keep it, then they ought to go to someone who does.”

Board lawyer Zach Goodrich said the workforce development agency didn’t answer the state’s questions about why it failed to respond to Kauffman’s seven requests for information explaining how the state would preserve the records, other than to “send him to Verizon.” 

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.

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