Gov. Reynolds sued (again) for violating Iowa’s open records law (again)

Gov. Kim Reynolds’ Facebook cover photo, uploaded Sept. 25, 2021.

The ACLU of Iowa filed a lawsuit against Gov. Kim Reynolds on Thursday, seeking to have a state court order the governor to fulfill her duty under the Iowa Open Records Act and provide information to journalists and members of the public who request it.

“Unfortunately this enforcement action has become necessary because the governor’s office has a troubling and really persistent problem of simply ignoring many of the open records requests filed with them,” ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen said during a news conference on Zoom announcing the lawsuit.

Iowa’s Open Record Act, along with state’s Open Meetings Act, was passed in 1967, in an effort to restore and strengthen public confidence in the state’s government. Iowa has one of the broadest open records, or freedom of information, laws in the country. With certain limited exceptions — such as personnel records and documents in ongoing criminal investigation — any Iowan is supposed to be able to request and receive public records for any reason.

“Every person shall have the right to examine and copy a public record and to publish or otherwise disseminate a public record or the information contained in a public record,” according to Iowa Code Chapter 22.

State code defines public records as “all records, documents, tape, or other information, stored or preserved in any medium, of or belonging to this state or any county, city, township, school, corporation, or political subdivision.”

The law requires that records requests be fulfilled in a reasonable amount of time.

The lawsuit was filed in Polk County District Court on Thursday, on behalf of three Iowa journalists and their organizations: Laura Belin of Bleeding Heartland, Clark Kaufmann of Iowa Capital Dispatch and Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council (FOIC), a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that represent numerous journalism outlets and open government advocates.

The complaint filed in district court cites eight particular requests for records, going back as far as 18 months, which the governor’s office has not fulfilled.

Belin’s requests are for records related to a video message the governor may have recorded for meatpacking plants early in the pandemic, communications the governor received encouraging her to sign or veto certain legislation and records related to the use of the governor’s mansion for private fundraising events. Kaufmann also requested records about the use of the governor’s mansion for a fundraiser, one that benefited Des Moines Christian School, as well as records related to the overpayment of and subsequent firing of the director of the Iowa Veterans Home. Evans has been seeking records about the use of taxpayer dollars to send members of the Iowa State Patrol to the Texas/Mexico border over the summer, in what appeared to be a political stunt.

“I think it’s important to stress that the reporters and media groups represented in this case have shown so much grace to the governor’s office in light of the challenge posed to the state by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bettis Austen said.

Because they have been ignored, the journalists have refiled the requests multiple times. The eight requests have been filed a total of 45 times.

“I purposely kept my requests very specific, so they would not take a lot of time to compile,” Belin said during the news conference. “By stonewalling my requests for over a year, the governor’s office has concealed information about matters of clear public interest.”

Belin has used public records to break such stories as the unusually massive increase in pay Dr. Caitlin Pedati, former medical director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, received, as well as how the governor’s office misappropriated federal pandemic relief funds.

The problems with the governor’s office not complying with open records requests goes well beyond the examples provided by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. It is common for reporters in Iowa, including those at Little Village, to have requests ignored.

Reynolds “has acted as if there is an asterisk in this law that says the governor is excused from having to comply with its requirements if it is inconvenient or might prove to be embarrassing,” Evans said on Thursday.

“This has been one of the most consequential time periods of Iowa history, but the governor and her staff have deprived the citizens of Iowa of documents and information they are entitled to receive to evaluate her work as the state’s chief executive and for citizens to better understand the challenges our state faces,” Bettis Austen said.

The governor’s office declined to comment on the lawsuit, but on Friday, Reynolds’ official spokesperson sent a mass email to journalists stating “we have revisited our open records process and have made changes to help efficiently complete requests.”

The lawsuit filed on Thursday asks the judge to declare the governor and her office have violated the Open Records Act, order them to produce the records sought by Belin, Kaufmann and Evans, and to follow the law in the future.

This is not the only lawsuit related to open records.

Former IDPH spokesperson Polly Carver-Kimm, who had worked as a public information officer for the department since 2007, filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Gov. Reynolds and her communications director, Pat Garrett. Carver-Kimm said she had been forced to resign in July 2020 because she was trying to fulfill media requests for information and public records in accordance with the Open Records Act.

Reynolds is also facing a lawsuit from a Utah attorney for failing to turn over documents related to the hiring of the Utah-based tech companies behind Test Iowa. The governor’s office eventually produced the requested documents after a long delay, but the lawsuit continues as the attorney is seeking to have a judge order Reynolds to comply with the Open Records Act in the future.

“Just as a thief does not moot his case by returning the stolen property, a violator who refuses to produce public records in a timely fashion cannot moot a lawsuit by producing the records on the eve of trial,” the attorney argued in her brief.

Attorneys for Reynolds are seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed by “arguing in court that she was too busy to respond quickly to public-records requests this year due to the pandemic, and that her decision-making process is shielded from disclosure by executive privilege,” Iowa Capital Dispatch reported earlier this month.

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