Governor Kim Reynolds’ office has flouted Iowa’s open records law since the earliest weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now the governor and her senior legal counsel Michael Boal are facing two lawsuits filed by a Utah attorney seeking records related to Iowa’s pandemic response.
As first reported by Ryan Foley of the Associated Press, Suzette Rasmussen filed suit in Polk County District Court on August 12, after the governor’s office failed to provide correspondence about the Test Iowa program, first requested five months earlier.
One lawsuit stems from Rasmussen’s efforts to obtain “all correspondence regarding the Nomi Health COVID-19 contracts from March 1, 2020, through March 11, 2021.” The other request was for correspondence between Reynolds, her staff, and Utah Governor Gary Herbert and his staff regarding the test kits and contracts associated with NOMI Health. NOMI signed no-bid contracts to set up the Test Utah program and later Test Iowa.
Rasmussen sued the Iowa Department of Public Health in late July for failing to provide emails related to Test Iowa. She represents the Jittai group established by Paul Huntsman, who chairs the board of the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper. Jittai has filed hundreds of records requests in Utah, Iowa, Nebraska, and Tennessee, all of which signed no-bid contracts to create COVID-19 testing programs.
The new lawsuits say Reynolds “has refused to timely and meaningfully respond” to the requests, filed on March 11 and March 12. Boal (who is the records custodian in the governor’s office) emailed Rasmussen more than four months later seeking search terms that could be used to locate responsive records. She replied the same day but still has received no documents.
The court filings (which you can read here and here) ask the District Court to compel Reynolds and Boal to provide the requested records, refrain from any more open records violations for a year, and pay damages between $500 and $2,500 as well as the plaintiff’s attorney fees.
Rasmussen also wants the court to remove Reynolds and Boal from office “if either is found to have engaged in a prior violation of the Act for which damages were assess[ed] against him during his term.” Iowa Code Chapter 22.10.3(d) calls on a court to issue an order removing a government official under those circumstances. As Foley mentioned in his story for the Associated Press, “it’s unclear whether that would apply to Reynolds. The Iowa Constitution gives lawmakers, not the courts, the power to impeach and remove the governor for misconduct.”
Asked to comment on the litigation, Rasmussen told Bleeding Heartland on August 19,
We have sought out public records to answer questions about the effectiveness of COVID testing methods, about the state’s protocols for awarding contracts to its private partners, and about the control and use of personal data. We’ve obtained thousands of pages of records and we hope to obtain many more, which we hope will further illuminate the relationships between government leaders and the private companies with whom they work, as well as how those partnerships may have affected the election cycles that followed.
Though we’ve gained access to some records of note, many records that we view as critical pieces of this puzzle are still being withheld. We remain concerned about this pattern of impeding access to records regarding the public’s business, and we believe those concerns should be shared by all Iowans, as well as similarly situated citizens in other states.
Huntsman wrote in July that he created a group to focus on public records requests about the COVID-19 testing programs because “I am a Utah taxpayer who is not amused when the state government and the private sector misuse public funds, some of which I believe went to private gain.”
P.S.–I have ten records requests outstanding with the governor’s office, the oldest dating to April 2020. Boal has not even acknowledged receipt of most of them. The governor’s staff have similarly ignored requests filed by other Iowa journalists over the past year and a half. Before the pandemic, Boal and his predecessor in Reynolds’ office typically fulfilled records requests within a month or two.
UPDATE: On August 20, I again informed Boal that I was still seeking the various records. He provided a single document in response to one of my requests (submitted in May 2021) and did not reply to the other emails. So I now have nine requests outstanding to the governor’s office.
Top image: Governor Kim Reynolds speaks about the new Test Iowa program during a COVID-19 press briefing on April 21, 2020. Photo by Zach Boyden-Holmes/Des Moines Register (pool).