Media groups sue Iowa governor over open records law

Dec 16, 2021, 12:14 AM | Updated: 2:45 pm
FILE - Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during a news conference at Iowa Spring Manufacturing, on Oct....

FILE - Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during a news conference at Iowa Spring Manufacturing, on Oct. 20, 2021, in Adel, Iowa. Three media organizations and their reporters sued Reynolds on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, alleging she has repeatedly violated the state's open records laws by ignoring requests for government records. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Three media organizations and their reporters sued Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds on Thursday, alleging she has repeatedly violated the state’s open records laws by ignoring requests for government records.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa is representing Laura Belin, who operates the liberal-leaning Bleeding Heartland blog; Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council; and Clark Kauffman, a reporter for the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

The reporters say they have tried to get public records from Reynolds’ office starting as early as April 2020 without success despite waiting for months and in some cases, well over a year. Often, the governor’s office didn’t acknowledge the records requests or respond to inquiries.

“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,” said ACLU of Iowa Legal Director Rita Bettis Austen.

The lawsuit seeks an order finding that Reynolds’ office violated the law, compelling her office to provide the requested records to the reporters and an order for the governor’s office to comply with future requests in a timely manner.

A spokesman for the Republican governor did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the lawsuit.

Belin has sought video messages Reynolds may have recorded for meatpacking plant employees during the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic and communications asking the governor to sign or veto certain legislation. She also sought records about the use of the governor’s mansion, Terrace Hill, for events held by private organizations.

“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.

Evans made a request in August for specific records regarding Iowa State Patrol employees being deployed at taxpayer expense to assist Texas with border security. The council he oversees 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. The Associated Press is a member.

Evans said Iowa’s public records law has been on the books for 40 years and has been regularly followed by past governors but that Reynolds has acted as if it 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.

Kauffman sought information about the governor auctioning off a dinner with her at Terrace Hill to benefit the Des Moines Christian school and communications regarding the former director of the Iowa Veterans Home, who was terminated after allegedly receiving salary overpayments.

Iowa’s Open Records Law is designed to guarantee the public has access to the public records of government bodies at all levels, with no exception for the governor’s office. The law does not allow public officials to delay access to records for an unreasonable amount of time.

Reynolds also has been seeking to dismiss lawsuits filed by Utah attorney Suzette Rasmussen, who asked for documents from Reynolds’ office and the Iowa Department of Public Health in March that included information about the state’s contracts with Utah-based Nomi Health for COVID-19 testing. Reynold and the health department provided information months later, after the lawsuit was filed, then argued the cases were moot because the state complied.

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Media groups sue Iowa governor over open records law