Iowa Capital Dispatch sues governor for public records

By: - December 16, 2021 2:23 pm

The American flag and the Iowa flag fly on the grounds near the State Capitol in Des Moines. (Photo by Katie Akin/ Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa Capital Dispatch sued Gov. Kim Reynolds and other members of her office on Thursday in state court for their repeated failures to respond to public information requests.

It joins the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and Bleeding Heartland, an online political news and progressive commentary site, in a suit that asks a judge to declare that Reynolds and her staff violated the state’s open records law and to compel a response to those requests. The suit, filed by the ACLU of Iowa, also seeks a court order requiring the governor’s office to comply with future requests and reimbursement of legal fees.

“We have joined this petition because we believe Iowans are entitled to accurate, in-depth information about the actions and functions of their state government,” said Kathie Obradovich, editor-in-chief of Iowa Capital Dispatch. “By failing to comply with the Iowa Open Meetings and Records Act, the governor’s office has deprived Iowans of information in the public interest related to how the governor is managing state government and using the resources of the state.”

Specifically, Capital Dispatch’s deputy editor, Clark Kauffman, has sought documents since April that pertain to a dinner with Reynolds at the governor’s mansion that was auctioned to raise money for Des Moines Christian School, but no documents have been provided, the lawsuit alleges.

Kauffman has also requested written communications between the former director of the Iowa Veteran’s Home and the governor’s staff that discuss the more than $100,000 of improper wages the former director allegedly was paid. The lawsuit alleges the governor’s office has provided some but not all of those communications that are subject to Kauffman’s request, which he initially made in May.

“The governor’s office sets the example for other state agencies, several of which have also failed to comply with the state open records law,” Obradovich said. “We need to change this culture of state government that prefers to hide rather than share public documents and operate in secrecy rather than with transparency.”

Iowa law allows government officials a “good-faith, reasonable delay” when they respond to records requests, which generally must happen within 20 days. The law does not list a required timeframe for actually producing those records.

“We are really now long past the point that any kind of delay could be viewed as reasonable,” said Rita Bettis Austen, legal director for ACLU of Iowa.

She said the case addresses 45 total requests and renewed requests for public information.

A governor’s spokesperson declined comment on the lawsuit.

Lawyers for Reynolds have argued in their defense of other open-records lawsuits that she has been too busy during the pandemic to quickly respond to such requests, court records show. That litigation was initiated in August by a Utah attorney who sought information in March about the state’s contracts for COVID-19 testing. After the two lawsuits were filed — one for each request that hadn’t been fulfilled — the governor’s office provided the information and moved to dismiss the litigation this month. The case is pending.

Laura Belin, the publisher of Bleeding Heartland, said she has sought copies of video messages Reynolds might have recorded in the early weeks of the pandemic for meatpacking employees, communications that lobbied Reynolds on certain legislation and records that pertain to the private use of the governor’s mansion.

“By stonewalling my records requests for over a year, the governor’s office has concealed information about matters of clear public interest,” Belin said.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, has unsuccessfully sought records that pertain to the deployment of Iowa State Patrol employees to assist with border security in Texas this past summer.

The council’s members include numerous prominent Iowa media organizations and others. The council successfully sued the Polk County Sheriff’s Office in 2019 for records related to a fatal shooting in Altoona.

“The governor’s refusal for the past year and a half to act on requests from numerous people is very troubling,” Evans said. “She and her staff have deprived the citizens of Iowa of records and information they are entitled to evaluate her work as Iowa’s chief executive.”

The new lawsuit was filed Thursday morning in Polk County. Its defendants are Reynolds and Michael Boal, her senior legal counsel, Pat Garrett, her former communications director, and Alex Murphy, her current communications director.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register.