Des Moines, Iowa — The Polk County District Court has now approved an agreement between Gov. Kim Reynolds' office and six Iowa journalists and media organizations regarding the Governor declining to produce COVID public records and other information in a timely manner.
The state had approved the agreement June 21. The agreement was then made official June 23 with the Polk County Clerk of Court accepting and adopting the agreement through the court order.
The clients in the case are Clark Kauffman and The Iowa Capital Dispatch, Randy Evans and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, and Laura Belin and Bleeding Heartland.
Starting as early as April 2020, these journalists and media organizations repeatedly sought records regarding the COVID pandemic and other matters of public interest. For months and in some cases, well over a year and a half, the journalists heard nothing back. In many cases, they didn't even get an acknowledgment of the requests.
The lawsuit resulted in a victory in April from the Iowa Supreme Court and set important precedent moving forward.
After we filed the lawsuit, the Governor's office turned over the public records our clients had sought. On June 21, the Governor’s Office agreed to settle the case favorably. It has agreed to:
- Undergo a one-year period of judicial oversight to make sure it continues to comply with Iowa’s Open Records Act.
- Pay $135,000 in legal fees and costs incurred during the year-and-a-half legal battle.
Statement from Laura Belin, Bleeding Heartland
"I look forward to receiving records more promptly now that the Governor's Office has agreed to this settlement and promised to comply with the law. Iowa enacted open record laws many years ago to protect the public's right to know. It's sad that we are still having to fight to make sure government officials follow those laws.
"Journalists need to be able to report on what's happening in our state government without unreasonable delays, especially during a public health emergency like the COVID-19 pandemic."
Statement from Kathie Obradovich, Iowa Capital Dispatch
"This case made clear that the Governor is not above the law and that stonewalling is not an acceptable government response to a request for public records. We are grateful for ACLU of Iowa’s and our fellow plaintiffs’ dedication to the First Amendment and determination to protect Iowa’s open records act for the benefit of all residents."
Statement from Randy Evans, Iowa Freedom of Information Council
"The Governor’s failure to comply with the law will cost Iowa taxpayers $135,000. Those are 135,000 reasons why state and local government officials and employees should understand they cannot ignore their duty to comply in a timely manner with requests for records.
"This lawsuit had its origins in the COVID pandemic, when the governor and her staff refused for up to 18 months to provide numerous records journalists requested. While it was an extremely busy time for government, the people of Iowa had lots of questions about how their state government was—or was not—responding to this health crisis, the worst in a century.
"No other custodian of government records in Iowa would be allowed to sidestep the requirements of the public records law for a year and a half without legal consequences. The Iowa Freedom of Information Council is gratified that this case made it abundantly clear the governor cannot disregard the law, either."
Statement from Thomas Story, ACLU of Iowa Staff Attorney
"It has been a privilege to serve these journalists and media organizations in this impactful case. Our clients and other members of the press like them fulfill a vital role in our democracy by keeping the public informed and the government accountable to the people. Throughout this litigation we have emphasized one crucial point: Nobody is above the law. The Iowa Supreme Court reinforced that point and set valuable court precedent that supports the right of all Iowans to a transparent, responsive government at every level.
"We have now settled the case by an agreement that the court has approved and adopted. We are pleased the Governor’s Office has agreed to a one-year term of judicial oversight of its compliance with Iowa’s open records law. If it becomes necessary, we look forward to working closely with the Governor’s Office to ensure our clients can access public records in a timely manner and report on state government so that 'we the people’ can understand, oversee, and engage with our elected officials.
"We note the Governor’s Office has stated it has revisited its open records policies and has committed to doing better moving forward. For our clients and us, this settlement agreement is about ensuring that it indeed will.
"We should not forget this litigation happened because the Governor’s Office ignored the open records requests of our clients for months, and in some cases, over a year and a half. This was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the public’s interest in its government’s response was at an all-time high. People may disagree as to whether the Governor’s Office met the challenge of the pandemic; but there should be little doubt it failed to keep the public informed. This cannot happen again.
"Because transparency and accountability to the people are vital to a robust democracy, the ACLU of Iowa is committed to protecting the rights of reporters and all Iowans to examine public records through the enforcement of Chapter 22."