Iowa Workforce Development says its director deleted all of her text messages

By: - February 24, 2022 3:32 pm

Iowa Workforce Development says the phone of department director Beth Townsend has been purged of all text messages. The Iowa Capital Dispatch asked Townsend last May for 11 weeks’ worth of work-related text messages. The agency says that because it has a policy of deleting text messages, there are none to disclose. (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch, with phone screenshot, documents and Townsend’s photo courtesy of Iowa Workforce Development and the Iowa Public Information Board)

The director of Iowa Workforce Development, who fielded a public information request last year for some of the work-related text messages on her phone, has deleted any such records from the device, an agency attorney said Thursday.

IWD legal counsel David Steen recently examined the state-owned phone of the agency’s director, Beth Townsend, in response to a request from the Iowa Public Information Board.

In a letter to IPIB on Thursday, Steen indicated he personally examined the phone to look for any text messages, regardless of the date they were sent or received, and found no messages of any kind on the device. He indicated this was due to messages being routinely deleted, which he said is in keeping with IWD’s policy of periodically purging text messages from phones.

“There are no text messages to reproduce from this phone,” Steen told the public information board in his letter. “As evidenced by the lack of messages, IWD is complying with the policy and deleting all messages of a transitory nature on a regular basis.”

Steen has said the policy of deleting text messages stems from unspecified concerns related to security and spam.

Text messages first requested in May 2021

The public information board’s request to have the phone examined was made two weeks ago, which was nine months after the Iowa Capital Dispatch requested access to 11 weeks’ worth of work-related text messages that Townsend may have sent or received between March 1, 2021, and May 19, 2021. Steen’s letter does not indicate when the text messages requested by the Capital Dispatch were deleted.

The news organization’s May 19, 2021, request for the texts was sent directly to Townsend and Steen. It asked the two of them to confirm they would take immediate steps to preserve the messages. Townsend and Steen never responded to that request, or to six subsequent requests to confirm the records were being preserved.

Steen later argued that because IWD doesn’t consider Townsend to be the legal custodian of the work-related messages on her phone, it made no effort to retrieve, or preserve, any such messages. He said IWD has always relied on the state’s phone-service carrier, Verizon, to provide “the most complete” record of any text messages, adding that the agency was “unaware” that Verizon doesn’t archive all of the text messages of its 89 million customers for more than seven days.

Last summer, the Capital Dispatch filed a complaint with IPIB over Townsend and Steen’s handling of the request. The complaint argued that IWD, not Verizon, was the legal custodian of the requested records and that someone at the agency was obligated by law to at least look at the phone to see whether the requested records were there.

In response to that complaint, the board staff recently issued a report saying there was probable cause to believe IWD had violated the state’s Open Records Law, and the board itself directed Steen to examine Townsend’s phone for the requested text messages.

The public information board is expected to revisit the Capital Dispatch’s complaint against IWD next month. IPIB Executive Director Margaret Johnson has recommended the board dismiss the complaint despite the finding of probable cause that IWD violated the law.

Agency denies any attempt to ‘subvert or ignore’ records law

In his letter to the board Thursday, Steen said “IWD strongly denies any assertion or allegation of wrongdoing or any attempt to subvert or ignore Iowa’s Open Records law in any way, shape, or form. IWD remains committed to transparency and compliance with Open Records rules and laws as evidenced by our ongoing and continued compliance with the State Records Manual and participation and cooperation with this board.”

The number of work-related messages deleted from Townsend’s phone is unknown, although Steen told the public information board last July that the Capital Dispatch’s request for the messages was unreasonable because the records, once retrieved, would “require many, many hours of review by IWD legal staff.”

Steen has also said that while there are no messages to be retrieved from Verizon, the company does store “text message details” – such as the dates, times, senders and recipients of messages — for six to 12 months.

The Capital Dispatch, noting that Verizon is now within one week of purging that data for some of the requested messages, asked Steen on Thursday to take immediate steps to obtain the information from Verizon before it is permanently lost.

Steen has yet to respond to that request.

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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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