Pretext for secrecy on Jamison firing isn't fooling anyone (updated)

UPDATE: On April 26 the governor’s office released a redacted version of the written complaint against Jamison, now enclosed at the end of this post.

Governor Kim Reynolds and her staff continue to withhold details on the “credible allegations” of sexual harassment that ended Dave Jamison’s tenure as director of the Iowa Finance Authority last month.

To hear her tell the story, the stonewalling is all about protecting Jamison’s victims. But Reynolds could provide more details–and comply with state law–without revealing the accusers’ identities.

Reynolds decided to fire Jamison on March 24, the day after an unspecified number of female Iowa Finance Authority employees brought their concerns to Jake Ketzner, the governor’s chief of staff. It’s not every day that a state agency director gets sacked. Naturally, many Iowans wanted to know more. What was the nature of Jamison’s unacceptable behavior? How many employees were targeted? Had the harassment occurred over a long period of time, or did one egregious incident prompt victims to come forward?

Responding to a public records request from the Associated Press on April 20, Reynolds’ legal counsel Colin Smith said the governor’s office had no documents explaining the grounds for dismissal, nor did staff have written records such as text messages or emails describing the alleged harassment, nor had they investigated the matter before Jamison was fired.

Were we supposed to believe Ketzner received no corroborating evidence during that Friday night meeting with the accusers? Did the governor axe Jamison based on hearsay, having done no fact-finding and seen nothing on paper?

Not likely. And as it turns out, not true.

Hours after the AP’s Ryan Foley and Barbara Rodriguez reported on April 23 that the governor’s office claimed to have no written records about the matter, Reynolds’ staff changed their story. The alleged victims had given Ketzner a written complaint. But the governor refused to release that document.

“The public’s right to know has to be balanced with the interests and well-being of the victims. They requested confidentiality, and I can’t allow them to be victimized again by betraying that trust,” Reynolds said in a statement, which didn’t address why the complaint couldn’t be released with sensitive information blacked out.

When reporters asked Reynolds about the matter at an April 23 press conference, the governor repeatedly pivoted to her “zero-tolerance policy” on harassment and concern for Jamison’s accusers. “I was asked to have this remain confidential, and I am honoring the request of the victims,” she insisted. “I want them to feel confident in the policies that we’ve laid out, and if that means protecting them confidentially, then that means following through with that.” (You can find her responses around 18:00 and 23:00 on this video.)

Government agencies routinely release public records with personal information blacked out. Only a few weeks ago, I received a batch of redacted documents from the governor’s office in response to an unrelated request.

Furthermore, Iowa’s open records law states, “free and open examination of public records is generally in the public interest even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials or others.” I’m all for common-sense editing to protect whistle-blowers, but nothing in the statute allows the governor to decide that privacy for those who report harassment is more important than the public’s right to know what events caused an agency director to be fired.

The AP reported, “In declining to release the complaint about Jamison, Reynolds’ office cited an administrative code detailing how the Department of Administrative Services investigates sexual harassment complaints.” Randy Evans of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council correctly observed, “The public records law trumps administrative rules or the governor’s own policy on confidentiality.” Even if that weren’t the case, the Iowa Administrative Code provision the governor’s staff are hanging their hat on (11-68.6(19B)) doesn’t apply to these circumstances.

Discrimination complaints, including disability-related and sexual harassment complaints. Each agency shall take proper and immediate action to investigate complaints of alleged discrimination. The director shall investigate any discrimination complaint against an agency as the director deems necessary, and attempt to negotiate a settlement to resolve a complaint. All information gathered in the course of an investigation, including, but not limited to, investigative reports prepared by the department, is confidential and shall not be released to persons outside the department unless the director deems such disclosure to be in the best interest of the state or unless ordered by a court.

The document in question wasn’t produced in the course of a director’s investigation of alleged harassment.

The Quad-City Times editors blasted the governor in an April 25 commentary.

Transparency laws are, by design, mechanisms for holding public officials accountable. And, after Monday’s flailing response to the Associated Press, it’s clear Reynolds has no interest in being held liable for her administration’s handling of the situation.

The nature of the complaint is key to understanding the functioning of a public agency. So, too, are documents detailing the administration’s handling of the complaint against Jamison and, should they exist, any previous indications he was targeting state employees.

The most reasonable conclusion is that Reynolds is hiding the details because it’s best for her, plain and simple. And her weak-sauce excuse about protecting the victims is an affront to Jamison’s victims and the people who paid his salary.

Flat out, Jamison was a public employee working on the taxpayer dime. And, by every account, he abused his power. The public has every right to know the degree of Jamison’s abuse. And it’s wholly possible to both protect Jamison’s victims while permitting the public to scrutinize the administration’s actions.

Reynolds may be counting on this controversy to blow over as political reporters turn their attention to the state budget and tax reform during the closing days of the legislative session. Journalists should continue to demand answers and the release of any written records pertaining to Jamison’s firing, including the complaint received on March 23. The official secrecy surrounding this episode is unwarranted and probably illegal.

P.S.–The Associated Press and Bleeding Heartland both requested the “documented reasons and rationale” for Jamison’s firing. Although many personnel files are exempt from the open records law under Iowa Code Chapter 22.7(11), Section 50 of last year’s collective bargaining law stipulated that the “documented reasons and rationale” for a state employee’s resignation in lieu of termination, discharge, or demotion would be a public record.

The letter I received from the governor’s counsel noted that Jamison served “in an ‘at will’ capacity.” His “employment was terminated in person. No document regarding the reasons and rationale for Mr. Jamison’s termination was created by the Office of the Governor.” At Reynolds’ April 23 press conference, she similarly implied she didn’t need to elaborate on Jamison’s offenses because of his at-will status. “These were credible allegations, and he’s an at-will employee.” Why hadn’t the governor documented her reasons? “Well, because he is an at-will, Kay [Henderson], I don’t have to give a reason. They are an at-will employee, and they are hired and served at the pleasure of the governor.”

Nothing in the relevant part of the collective bargaining law indicates that the new language excludes at-will employees or was meant to apply only to merit-based employees. In an April 24 e-mail, the governor’s senior legal counsel Ryan Koopmans told me, “there’s been confusion on this issue. The Governor’s office hasn’t taken that position–that is, we haven’t argued that the ‘documented reasons and rationale’ section applies only to merit-based employees.” Koopmans further explained in a telephone interview that there simply is “no paper that has the documented reasons and rationale on it.”

UPDATE: The governor’s office released this redacted letter on April 26. One of Jamison’s victims detailed extensive harassing behavior over a period of years. She mentioned that the Iowa Finance Authority’s chief administrative officer “recently reprimanded Dave for saying these things,” and that the agency’s general counsel “often tells Dave that he needs to stop it or be quiet.” Clearly state employees need better training not only on what harassment is, but also on what to do if they see it happening at work. Someone should have reported Jamison long ago.

In closing, the victim wrote to the governor, “I know you’re friends with Dave and I hate to put this on your shoulders, but I just can’t take it anymore. I think DAS [Department of Administrative Services] will just cover for him and I’ll end up without a job. Please help me or tell me who to go to.”

SECOND UPDATE: Iowa Democratic Party chair Troy Price released this statement.

“It is unconscionable that this kind of predatory behavior was allowed under the Reynolds Administration and that Reynolds sought to cover up the details of the complaint. The report demonstrates that the Reynolds Administration permitted a long pattern of abusive behavior by a cabinet appointee and close friend of the Governor.

“This opens up far more questions than it answers, including how long the administration was aware of Jamison’s harassment. If the IFA General Counsel knew, who else in the administration was aware of Director Jamison’s abuse? It’s time for the Governor to stop trying to cover up these problems and come clean about why she allowed this behavior to continue.”

Iowa House Minority Leader Mark Smith said in a statement,

“After reading the complaint made against Dave Jamison, I was sickened to think any employee would have to endure what occurred. The complaint released today calls into question why a host of actions were not taken to cease the harassment.

The Reynolds Administration allowed this behavior to carry on for nearly two years and when exposed they attempted to cover it up. As a long-time friend and ally of Mr. Jamison, Governor Reynolds and her Administration cannot be trusted to handle this matter justly.

I call on Governor Reynolds to turn over all information related to this sexual harassment complaint and all personnel files related to Dave Jamison, including any disciplinary action taken, to all authorities with the proper legal jurisdiction.”

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