(The Center Square) – Iowa taxpayers will need to pay $135,000 in a settlement that Iowa media organizations won against Gov. Kim Reynolds’ office, a party in the case said Monday.
According to an American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa news release issued Monday, Reynolds declined to produce COVID public records and other information in a timely manner, violating Iowa’s open records laws.
“Starting as early as April 2020, these journalists and media organizations repeatedly sought records regarding the COVID pandemic and other matters of public interest,” the ACLU of Iowa’s news release said. “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.”
ACLU of Iowa brought the lawsuit against Reynolds and various members of Reynolds’ staff on behalf of clients Clark Kauffman of The Iowa Capital Dispatch, Randy Evans of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, and Laura Belin of Bleeding Heartland.
Reynolds’ office turned over the public records after the ACLU of Iowa filed the lawsuit, the release said. The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously decided in favor of the media organizations in April.
On June 21, the governor’s office settled the case and agreed to undergo a one-year period of judicial oversight to make sure it continues to comply with Iowa’s Open Records Act and pay $135,000 in legal fees and costs incurred during the year-and-a-half legal battle. The Polk County District Court accepted and adopted the agreement June 23.
“The Governor’s failure to comply with the law will cost Iowa taxpayers $135,000,” Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Director Randy Evans said in a statement. “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.”
Evans said that while the COVID pandemic was an extremely busy time for government, Iowans 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,” Evans said. “The Iowa Freedom of Information Council is gratified that this case made it abundantly clear the governor cannot disregard the law, either.”
ACLU of Iowa Staff Attorney Thomas Story said in a statement that the clients and other members of the press fulfill a vital role in 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,” Story said. “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 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.”
Gov. Reynolds’ office hasn’t issued a statement regarding the settlement.