Des Moines, Iowa — Today the ACLU of Iowa filed a lawsuit on behalf of three reporters and three media and open government organizations to compel the Iowa Governor's Office to release public records regarding COVID-19 and other public records. The media organizations have been trying to get the records for the last year and a half.
The lawsuit details multiple instances in which the Governor's office has violated Iowa law. It seeks an order finding that the Governor’s office violated Iowa open records law, compelling the Governor's office to turn over the requested records to the news organizations, and an order for the Governor's office to comply with future requests in a timely manner.
All three have filed repeated requests for information, but received either no response or the Governor’s office acknowledged the request but then failed to provide the records—even after numerous renewed requests and inquiries into the status of the Governor’s response to the records.
ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen, said, "The ability of journalists like our clients to access public records is one of the essential safeguards of our democracy. The open record law ensures the public’s access to open records in order to assure transparency and the public accountability of our elected officials to the people they represent."
"However, unfortunately, the Governor’s office’s handling of public records requests since the beginning of the pandemic has demonstrated a persistent pattern of just ignoring them. The Governor is not exempt from the law," Bettis Austen said.
"The public’s need for robust reporting about our government is greater than ever. We count on reporters every day to shine a light on public officials. We are proud to represent our clients in their efforts to enforce their right to public records, so that in turn, they can do their job of informing the public," Bettis Austen said.
The lawsuit has six official plaintiffs, three individuals and the three media organizations they are associated with.
- Laura Belin and Bleeding Heartland, an independent news organization that covers state government
- Randy Evans and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a media membership organization
- Clark Kauffman, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, and the Iowa Capital Dispatch, an independent, not-for-profit statewide news organization, which he works for.
All have filed repeated requests for public records with the Governor's office starting as early as April 2020 and the delays have stretched into months in some cases, and well over a year in others.
Laura Belin and Bleeding Heartland
Repeated requests for information from Bleeding Heartland to the Governor's office, which have been ignored, include:
- Video messages the governor may have recorded for meatpacking plant employees during the early weeks of the pandemic
- Communications asking the governor to sign or veto certain legislation
- Records of donations of the use of Terrace Hill for events for private organizations
Laura Belin, Bleeding Heartland's publisher and primary reporter, said, "I purposely kept my requests very specific so that they would not take a lot of time to compile."
But Bleeding Heartland still has not received any of the materials requested.
"By stonewalling my records requests for over a year, the Governor's office has concealed information about matters of clear public interest," said Belin.
"Iowans have a right to know the information included in these requests. They deserve to know the content of any videos featuring our Governor that were played in meatpacking plants, where the worst outbreaks occurred during the early weeks of the pandemic. They have a right to know who urged the Governor to sign or veto important legislation. And they have a right to know which organizations were given favorable treatment and allowed to auction off time with the governor at her official residence, and if taxpayers footed the costs associated with those Terrace Hill events."
"Iowa's open records law was written expressly so that politicians and others couldn't do exactly this kind of stonewalling. Gov. Reynolds is not above the law," Belin said.
Randy Evans and Iowa Freedom of Information Council (FOIC)
The FOIC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization of newspapers, radio and television stations, media associations, educators, publishers, broadcasters, and others interested in open government and First Amendment rights. In August 2021, it requested specific records regarding Iowa State Patrol employees being deployed, using Iowa taxpayers' money, to assist Texas with border security in Summer 2021.
The Governor's office has never supplied these records.
Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa FOIC and long-time award-winning Iowa journalist, said that Gov. Reynold's refusal to produce requested public documents is a new development among Iowa governor's offices.
"Iowa’s public records law has been on the books for 40 years. In that time, a long string of governors regularly responded to the requests for public information made by journalists and ordinary citizens," Evans said.
"Unlike her predecessors, however, Governor Reynolds has not responded with the same transparency. She has acted as if the public records law does not apply to her. She 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.
"The Governor’s refusal for the past year and a half to act on requests from numerous people is very troubling. She and her staff have deprived the citizens of Iowa of records and information they are entitled to evaluate her work as Iowa's chief executive," he said.
"The Office of the Governor must comply with the public records law — whether she likes that or not, and regardless of whether she would prefer to avoid the public scrutiny that releasing these records might bring about," Evans said.
Clark Kauffman and The Iowa Capital Dispatch
Iowa Capital Dispatch is a not-for-profit news organization dedicated to nonpartisan, unbiased coverage of state government. It also has had difficulty getting requested information from the Governor's office:
- Information regarding the Governor auctioning off of a dinner with her at Terrace Hill to benefit the Des Moines Christian school.
- Communications regarding the former director of the Iowa Veterans Home, who was terminated after allegedly receiving salary overpayments. The facts regarding the basis for his termination are disputed. In that case, a few but not all of the records requested were provided.
Kathie Obradovich, Iowa Capital Dispatch editor-in-chief, says, "We have joined this petition because we believe Iowans are entitled to accurate, in-depth information about the actions and functions of their state government. By failing to comply with the Iowa Open Meetings and Records Act, the governor’s office has deprived Iowans of information in the public interest related to how the governor is managing state government and using the resources of the state. The governor’s office sets the example for other state agencies, several of which have also failed to comply with the state open records law. We need to change this culture of state government that prefers to hide rather than share public documents and operate in secrecy rather than with transparency."
Systemic Lack of Response from Governor's Office
All of the journalists and media organization plaintiffs said they recognize that especially in the early stages of the pandemic, the Governor's office faced many challenges, and that as a result, they were patient about the original delays, giving the Governor’s office multiple opportunities to provide the records over the last 18 months.
But as the months stretched on, it became clear that the Governor's office was simply ignoring multiple open records requests by multiple news organizations.
According to Bettis Austen, "Our clients showed remarkable patience and understanding with the Governor’s office in light of the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the Governor’s office continued to unreasonably flout the law, which requires that records be provided in a reasonable period of time. But we’re long past the point when a delay might be considered reasonable. At this point, the delays are beyond the pale. Our clients would have much preferred the Governor’s office follow the law than have to take this legal action just to be able to get the information they need to do their job to cover matters of high public interest in these demanding times."
The Governor has been questioned by other journalists about her and her office's noncompliance with open records laws and ignoring or not responding to reporters' requests for information.
During a January 7 online forum, Iowa Capital Press Association president Erin Murphy asked Gov. Reynolds about her office's ongoing noncompliance with open record laws and if she would instruct her staff to respond to open record requests as soon as possible. Gov. Reynolds responded by saying "...I have no issue with making that commitment."
Iowa Open Records Law
Iowa's Open Records Law is designed to guarantee that the public has access to the public records of government bodies at all levels–with no exception for the Governor’s office. Records should be disclosed under the law unless they fit specific exceptions for confidential records. The law does not allow public officials to delay access to records for an unreasonable amount of time.