Iowa Department of Public Health sued for failing to produce public records related to Test Iowa

–Blair Gaunt

The Iowa Department Public Health is being sued for not complying with the state’s Open Records Act by failing to produce documents on Test Iowa requested by a Utah attorney.

In her lawsuit filed in Polk County District Court on Thursday, Attorney Suzette Rasmussen of Draper, Utah, asked the court to compel IDPH to produce “copies of all correspondence between the Iowa Department of Public Health, including but not limited to Interim Director Kelly Garcia, and the Iowa Governor’s Office, Utah state officials, Nebraska state officials, and Tennessee state officials regarding the Test Iowa Contract from March 1, 2020, through the date of the Request.”

According to the court filing, Rasmussen first made her request using Iowa’s Open Records Act on March 11, and received an emailed response from IDPH spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand, who is also named in the lawsuit, stating that Ekstrand “anticipated having the Request fulfilled within five days.” That didn’t happen.

Several exchanges of emails between Rasmussen and Ekstrand followed, and on July 20, Ekstrand emailed Rasmussen and “indicated the Records were in final review and she anticipated being able to release them soon.” That didn’t happen.

Rasmussen waited more than a month after that final exchange to file the lawsuit.

Rasmussen is seeking the records related to Test Iowa on behalf of Jittai, a Salt Lake City-based organization that has been trying to obtain public records related to Utah-based tech companies that received no-bid multi-million-dollar contracts to set up testing programs in several states. That includes Test Iowa, to which Gov. Kim Reynolds awarded a $26 million no-bid contract after actor Ashton Kutcher recommended the governor look into the services offered by the tech companies.

“He knew one of the individuals that had been working on that,” Reynolds said during the April 23 news conference. “Was a friend of his — or just a colleague, and knew him. [sic] So, he said, ‘If you’d like, I’d be happy to connect the two of you.’”

Kutcher’s friend — and his publicist confirmed to the AP it was a friend — is the CEO of one of the tech companies behind Test Iowa. Reynolds later said she hadn’t even considered any other company or institution to run the state’s testing program after speaking with the CEOs of the Utah tech companies.

None of those companies had any experience running a large-scale medical testing program, beyond their original project Test Utah, which had been in existence less than month before Reynolds awarded the contract for Test Iowa.

After receiving the no-bid contract for Test Iowa, the companies went on to receive no-bid contracts run the state COVID-19 testing programs in Nebraska and Tennessee, both of which have Republican governors.

The Salt Lake City Tribune has been carefully tracking the activities of the Utah companies behind the testing programs, and Paul Huntsman, chair of the paper’s board of directors, formed Jittai to facilitate those efforts.

In an article written for the Tribune, Huntsman explained he started Jittai — “a Japanese term, roughly translated to truth and fact” — so he could pay the expenses related to getting state governments to provide documents related to the testing programs.

“The high cost of quality journalism should never become insurmountable by litigation or due to bureaucratic webs,” Huntsman wrote. “It is a betrayal of the public’s right to know public business… And I will make the findings [of the records request publicly] available, so journalists in multiple states can build reporting based on the public documents we have sought and will seek.”

It will be up to each news organization to determine whether, and how, to use records Jittai makes public.

IDPH has been the focus of complaints throughout the pandemic for its failure to respond to records requests or even basic questions from Iowa reporters. This is the result of a deliberate strategy of the governor’s office, according to another lawsuit involving IDPH.

Last September, 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.

According to the lawsuit filed by Carver-Kimm, after the COVID-19 pandemic reached Iowa in March 2020, the governor’s office began to insist all information regarding the virus and the state’s effort to respond to it had to be approved by the governor’s office before being released to the media, in order to be able “to slow, stifle and otherwise divert the free flow of information.”

The lawsuit alleges that Reynolds and Garrett pressured the-then IDPH director to restrict Carver-Kimm’s role at the agency and pressure her to quit because she was complying with the state’s Open Records Act and otherwise providing reporters with information in the same way she had during her previous 12 years at the agency.

According to the governor’s office, Reynolds and Garrett deny the allegations.

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office is defending Reynolds and Garrett in the lawsuit, and its lawyers argued in a brief filed earlier this month that even if Carver-Kimm was fired because she was trying to comply with the Open Records Act, that doesn’t constitute wrongful termination because there was not “a clear public policy that was jeopardized by Carver-Kimm’s termination.”

As the Associated Press’ Ryan Foley reported last week, the Attorney General’s office argued in its brief that the transparency requirements of the Open Records Act, which has been in place since 1967, “is the sort of general, vague and amorphous concept that is neither clearly defined nor well-recognized.”

Allowing every state law to be considered public policy would let employment decisions be “challenged on a plethora of bases buried throughout the code” and “eviscerate at-will employment within state government,” the lawyers argued.

The Carver-Kimm lawsuit wasn’t needed to establish the governor’s office took control of information coming out of IDPH after the start of the pandemic. Reporters, including those at Little Village, were frequently told by IDPH spokespeople other than Carver-Kimm that requests for information from the department had been forwarded to the governor’s office.

Carver-Kimm’s attorneys have not yet filed a response to the attorney general argument.

In a statement to the AP, a spokesperson for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller said that despite the argument its lawyers made in their filing, “We are not saying the Iowa Open Records Act is not important public policy.”

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