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ACLU sues Iowa governor for ignoring records requests from news media

The Republican governor has a “troubling and persistent practice” of failing to comply with open records requests from Iowa news outlets, according to the civil rights group.

(CN) — The ACLU of Iowa sued Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds on Thursday on behalf of three news organizations that have been stymied for as long as 18 months in their efforts to obtain public records that would reveal the governor’s conduct on issues ranging from Covid-19 to sending state troopers to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Unfortunately, it became necessary to file this lawsuit because of the governor’s office’s troubling and persistent practice” of failing to comply with open records requests from Iowa news organizations, Rita Bettis Austen, ACLU of Iowa legal director, said in a press conference Thursday.

The lawsuit seeks fulfillment of eight specific records requests dating back to 2020, or a total of 45 requests counting the number of times the requests have been renewed after being “unfulfilled and largely ignored” for as long as 18 months, Bettis Austen said.

Bettis Austen said there is no question that Iowa’s Open Records Act, or Chapter 22 of the Iowa Code, applies to the governor’s office. “Every single governor’s office since the law’s inception has understood that they must comply with Chapter 22," she said.

The ACLU's suit filed in Polk County District Court asks the court to issue an order that the governor’s office violated the Open Records Act, that the governor's office must turn over the requested records to the news organizations, and that the governor's office comply with future requests in a timely manner.

The complaint says the case involves “a troubling and ongoing pattern of non-compliance and unreasonable delay by the Iowa governor’s office and its staff to Chapter 22 open records requests submitted by Iowa’s reporters, including plaintiffs, that spans over 18 months.”

Although the journalists have given the defendants “ample time and multiple opportunities to provide the records,” the lawsuit alleges the governor and her staff persisted in violating the open records law by failing to “promptly and timely provide the records requested” and “denied access to the open records altogether.”

The suit was filed on behalf of Laura Belin, publisher and lead reporter for the Bleeding Heartland blog that covers Iowa government and politics; Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a nonprofit organization of Iowa news media and First Amendment advocates; and Clark Kauffman, a reporter for the Iowa Capital Dispatch, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government.

Among the plaintiffs’ records requests that have not been fulfilled is Kauffman’s request for communications regarding the former director of the Iowa Veterans Home, who was fired after allegedly receiving salary overpayments.

In August 2021, Evans and the Iowa FOI Council requested records regarding Iowa State Patrol employees being deployed with the use of Iowa taxpayers' money to assist Texas with U.S.- Mexico border security last summer.

Belin sought copies of video messages the governor may have recorded for meatpacking plant employees during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Those records, among others, were not released by the governor’s office, and in some cases their requests were not even acknowledged.

“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,” Iowa Capital Dispatch editor-in-chief Kathie Obradovich said in a statement released by the ACLU. “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."

Iowa’s open records law does not set a specific deadline for releasing public records. The law provides for a “good-faith, reasonable delay,” including up to 20 days to determine whether the record is confidential, but the Iowa Supreme Court in a 2014 ruling said access to an open record “shall be provided promptly upon request unless the size or nature of the request makes prompt access unfeasible.”

In a statement released Thursday, Bettis Austen said, "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.”

A spokesman for the governor’s office declined to comment.  

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