Senators request records of auditor’s subpoenas after Supreme Court ruling

By: - April 11, 2023 2:54 pm

State senators are seeking records of all subpoenas issued by State Auditor Rob Sand during his term in office. (Photo illustration via Canva with screen shot of Sand courtesy of Iowa PBS)

Three state senators have submitted open records requests for all subpoenas State Auditor Rob Sand has issued since taking office.

The request comes in response to the Iowa Supreme Court ruling against the auditor’s subpoena of information from a municipal insurance risk pool.

Sens. Mike Bousselot, Jason Schultz and Mike Klimesh submitted a request for copies of all subpoenas issued by Sand from Jan. 2, 2019 to April 7, 2023. The Supreme Court issued a ruling Friday that the auditor’s office did not have the authority to investigate the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool (ICAP), a program that provides property and casualty insurance coverage for more than 800 Iowa public entities, including 75 of Iowa’s 99 counties.

Sand issued a subpoena to ICAP in January 2021 after a 2019 Associated Press report that the group’s board of directors — current and former public officials — were holding annual meetings at out-of-state resorts and in private Iowa clubs. In 2019, the board held meetings at an upscale hotel on a bluff of Lake Michigan in St. Joseph, Michigan, and during an insurance conference at Marco Island in Florida. Board members received daily pay for attending and traveling to these meetings, and were typically reimbursed for travel, hotels and meals.

While ICAP volunteered some of the information Sand requested, the organization took Sand to court in 2020 arguing that the group is not a government agency, meaning the auditor does not have the authority to review their financial records.

Bousselot said the senators requested all of Sand’s subpoenas to investigate whether there were other instances of Sand abusing the office’s subpoena power.

“The Iowa Supreme Court case from Friday shows Rob Sand has issued subpoenas to non-governmental entities beyond his legal authority,” Bousselot wrote in an email to the Iowa Capital Dispatch. “… The senators want to see the subpoenas he has issued, give a voice to those who were too intimidated to fight back, and ensure Iowans’ privacy is being protected from an overreaching government official.”

Bousselot said the Supreme Court case shows the need to pass Senate File 478, a bill passed through the Senate in March that would prevent the state auditor’s office from accessing personal information, such as medical records, grades or income tax returns, without approval from the agency being audited.

“Many entities in Iowa are not able to finance lawsuits all the way to the Supreme Court and, as a consequence, do not have recourse when they are subpoenaed inappropriately,” Bousselot said in a news release. “SF 478 gives all Iowans those common sense protections. I remain optimistic agreement can be found with the House to move this policy forward.”

House lawmakers amended the bill to provide exemptions to these restrictions for investigations that involve embezzlement and theft. The changes came after employees with the Iowa auditor’s office and other state auditors said the legislation could prevent federal funds from going to Iowa agencies. Grants for programs such as student loans and medical assistance require the recipient state agency be audited using generally accepted government auditing standards before they can get federal funding.

In response to the open records request, the auditor’s office has so far produced the subpoena requests for ICAP. Sonya Heitshusen, the public information officer for the state auditor’s office, said subpoenas are considered work papers under Iowa Code and are therefore confidential. The ICAP audit specifically was ruled unauthorized and can be disclosed through the open records request, but Heitshusen said subpoenas that are a part of other audits would be considered confidential information.

The office is currently reviewing if there is other information it would be able to release for the open records request, Heitshusen said. The senators’ letter asked the auditor’s office for “redacted copies of the subpoenas that removes the information that you believe is confidential.”

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver applauded the senators’ open records request for making an effort to “protect the privacy of Iowans,” saying the ICAP ruling showed the need to take action on protecting Iowans’ confidential information.

“Friday’s ruling again raised the concern and urgency for action on this issue,” Whitver said in a statement. “With the determination by the court the auditor’s office has exceeded its statutory authority, it’s critical for the Senate to identify any other areas where the auditor’s office has exceeded its authority to issue subpoenas.”

The auditor’s office staff said the ICAP investigation was pursued because it is an entity funded by taxpayer dollars, and not a person. Sand said the state Supreme Court ruling is not related to the information restricted by the proposed legislation, and that “political insiders who just voted for it are making new excuses for their terrible vote.”

Sand is the only Democrat to hold a statewide elected office in Iowa following the 2022 midterm elections. Sand and Democrats have argued the bill is politically motivated, and said the restrictions will keep the office from uncovering waste, fraud and abuse in Iowa’s government.

“Their records request and press release contain false statements, as you can see by reading the document in question,” Sand said in a statement. “They want to distract from the fact that government watchdogs and professionals publicly agreeing that even the Iowa House amendment to (Senate File 478) remains a catastrophe.”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.