Board dismisses complaint over deleted cellphone texts
Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend. (Photo by Charlie Neibergall/AP, pool)
For the second time in less than a year, the Iowa Public Information Board dismissed open records complaints filed by Clark Kauffman, Iowa Capital Dispatch’s deputy editor, despite finding merit in his claims against state offices.
At issue Thursday was Kauffman’s request 10 months ago for work-related text messages from the cellphone of Beth Townsend, director of Iowa Workforce Development, as part of his investigation into unemployment benefits fraud. Kauffman repeatedly asked for the messages — and for their retention — after other information requests about the fraud went unfulfilled.
IWD ultimately responded that it couldn’t provide the messages because Verizon Wireless, the service provider for the state-owned cellphone, was unable to retrieve them.
Kauffman argued that IWD should have obtained them directly from the cellphone, which the agency conceded last month it had not attempted. When the board considered the complaint last month, it delayed its decision pending an IWD review of the phone.
That review found that Townsend had deleted all text messages — over an 11-week period from March to May 2021 — that were subject to the request.
IWD legal counsel David Steen said the deletions were in accordance with agency policy that stems from unspecified security concerns. It’s unclear when they were deleted.
“My request was for text messages that would have been sent or received right up to the point where I sent in my request,” Kauffman told the board Thursday. “So unless the director is deleting messages within seconds of sending and receiving them — and does that with all of her text messages — then it would stand to reason that they were deleted after the request was filed.”
Steen said IWD has updated its records retention policies so that it complies with Iowa law in the future, which was sufficient to dissuade some board members from voting to proceed with a more formal investigation that might result in a fine of up to $2,500.
The board voted 4-3 to dismiss Kauffman’s complaint while acknowledging there was evidence IWD violated the state’s Open Records Law.
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Included in that dismissal order was a separate complaint that IWD had failed to comply with another Kauffman request for the documents associated with an unemployment case. IWD initially produced 17 pages of documents for that request — assuring him twice those were all the documents it had — but supplied an additional 380 after he pressed for more.
In a separate case in August 2021, the board dismissed Kauffman’s complaint against the Iowa Department of Public Health, which had taken nearly four months to partially respond to his December 2020 request for a list of all nursing homes where coronavirus outbreaks had occurred.
IDPH said its resources were stretched thin by the pandemic and that it had updated its computer systems and policies after Kauffman’s request to better facilitate those requests in the future.
The board ultimately voted to accept a recommendation from its legal counsel that said “probable cause exists to believe the IDPH violated Iowa Code chapter 22” but that the case should be dismissed “as an exercise of administrative discretion.”
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