Fighting public-records lawsuits, Reynolds appeals to Iowa Supreme Court

By: - March 3, 2022 3:25 pm

The Iowa Judicial Building. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Judicial Branch)

Lawyers for Gov. Kim Reynolds, facing two separate lawsuits alleging Open Records Law violations by the governor and her staff, are fighting to have all the claims dismissed before going to trial.

One of the lawsuits is already headed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which has agreed to review a lower court decision denying Reynolds’ motion to have the case dismissed. In the other case, a district court hearing is scheduled for later this month to hear Reynolds’ arguments for dismissal.

The latter case stems from a lawsuit filed in December by the ACLU of Iowa on behalf of the Iowa Capital Dispatch, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and Bleeding Heartland, a progressive, political news and commentary website.

That lawsuit alleges the governor’s office violated the law in failing to respond to three organizations’ formal requests for access to various government records. The lawsuit seeks a declaratory ruling that Reynolds and her staff repeatedly violated the law, as well as an order directing the governor’s office to comply with future requests for information.

In court filings made on the governor’s behalf, Assistant Attorney General Samuel Langholz has argued that the plaintiffs sued Reynolds only because they didn’t receive responses to their information requests “as fast as they desired.”

Langholz has asked the court to dismiss the case, noting that less than three weeks after the lawsuit was filed, the governor’s legal counsel provided “all records responsive to (the plaintiffs’) requests.” He told the court that the plaintiffs’ case is “moot because they’ve received their requested records.”

In response to the Langholz’s claims, Leah Patton, attorney for the ACLU of Iowa, has told the court the governor and her staff still have not provided the plaintiffs with all of the requested records. She cited letters from the governor’s own legal counsel, Michael Boal, who stated in January that some of the requested records will not be made public either because they’re considered attorney work product or because the governor’s office is asserting attorney-client privilege.

Noting that the Open Records Law specifies a 20-day timeframe for government officials to determine whether a record should be treated as public information, Patton said Reynolds “delayed months to years” in providing some of the documents and then did so only after a lawsuit was filed.

Patton told the court Reynolds’ actions set “a terrible precedent for other state agencies as well as local governmental bodies. These entities are likely to follow the governor’s lead in terms of their own responses to open records requests.” Those governmental bodies, she said, are likely to “point to the governor’s office, with all of the resources and dedicated communications and legal staff at its disposal, and reason that if the governor’s office can ignore (the Open Records Law) in times of stress and strain, for years, surely their offices, with fewer resources, can as well.”

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for March 25.

A separate lawsuit over the governor’s alleged failure to comply with the Open Records Law was recently put on hold pending an Iowa Supreme Court review.

That litigation stems from a set of public-records requests Utah attorney Suzette Rasmussen filed with Reynolds’ office in March 2021, asking for all correspondence regarding the state’s contracts with Nomi Health for COVID-19 testing.

By mid-August 2021, the governor’s office had yet to turn over any of the records and Rasmussen went to court, filing two separate lawsuits, each pertaining to one of the two requests.

On Sept. 2, after the lawsuits were filed, Reynolds’ lawyers turned over what it said were all of the requested public records and then asked the court to dismiss the lawsuits, claiming they were moot. They also argued that the timeliness of the governor’s response to public-records requests shouldn’t be an issue for the court since the state’s Open Records Law “contains no hard deadline for responding to a records request.”

The two cases were later consolidated, and after a district court judge rejected the governor’s argument that Rasmussen’s claims should dismissed, lawyers for the state asked the Iowa Supreme Court to hear their appeal of that decision.

On Feb. 14, the Supreme Court agreed to grant the state’s application for appeal, and ordered the district court proceedings to be stayed, or put on hold, pending its review.

In speaking to the Iowa Capitol Press Association in early January, Reynolds said her office’s response to public-records requests has not been adequate and indicated new policies were being put in place.

“It was not acceptable, I won’t allow that to continue to happen,” she said. “I’ve made that clear to my team and my staff. In their defense, in 2020 we received an unbelievable amount of requests … I believe in transparency.”

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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.