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Former Public Health Spokesperson Says She Was Fired For Responding To Public Information Requests

Former Iowa Department of Public Health Polly Carver-Kimm and her attorney, Thomas Duff of the West Des Moines-based Duff Law Firm, held a virtual press conference over her wrongful termination lawsuit.
Former Iowa Department of Public Health spokesperson Polly Carver-Kimm and her attorney, Thomas Duff of the West Des Moines-based Duff Law Firm, held a virtual press conference over her wrongful termination lawsuit.

Former IDPH Spokesperson Polly Carver-Kimm who was fired in July after working there for 13 years has filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in Polk County alleging Gov. Kim Reynolds and Pat Garrett, her spokesperson, violated the state's whistleblower law.

The former communications director for the state Department of Public Health said she was terminated from her position in July for pushing to answer journalists’ public information requests.

Polly Carver-Kimm had worked for the state department of health as a spokesperson for 13 years when she was terminated in July.

Carver-Kimm's attorney Thomas Duff of the West Des Moines-based Duff Law Firm filed a wrongful termination lawsuit on Wednesday in Polk County District Court. It alleges Gov. Kim Reynolds and her spokesperson Pat Garrett violated the state’s whistleblower law after Carver-Kimm was stripped of her duties and eventually terminated for attempting to comply with Iowa's open records law.

At a press conference with her lawyer on Thursday, Carver-Kimm said starting in March she was slowly cut off from her regular duties including answering public information requests with no explanation. In July, she was told she could either resign or be terminated by then-IDPH Director Gerd Clabaugh.

"During my nearly 13 years at the Iowa Department of Public Health, I never had a negative job review. And I was never removed from a project. That all changed just days after the governor's office became involved," she said.

Carver-Kimm is a former journalist who started with IDPH in 2007. She said she had been "heavily involved" with the department's response to the COVID-19 pandemic since its early days.

But she said that changed in March, after the first COVID-19 cases in Iowa were announced and the state enacted emergency protocols, which involved moving some of the health department and governor's office staff to the state Emergency Operations Center in Johnston.

Carver-Kimm said she was told COVID-19 messaging "needed to come from the governor's office." Shortly after, she said she was taken off of coordinating media interviews.

"At the time that occurred, I did ask, 'why is this happening? You know, why am I not doing media inquiries?' And I was told that another staff member was out of SEOCC — at the State Emergency Operations Command Center — as you know, and that that would make it easier to coordinate responses," she said. "But a few days after that I was sent out to SEOCC as well, but I still didn't take over those media questions. I was kept off that permanently.”

Carver-Kimm said she was also told not to email State Medical Director Caitlin Pedati or Deputy State Epidemiologist Ann Garvey because they were "too busy."

According to the lawsuit, for the 13 years of her employment Carver-Kimm complied records request by sending them for review to Assistant Attorney General Heather Adams and would then send the approved documents to the party that requested them and "the governor's office was never involved in this process."

She said she was eventually told that all documents that had already been approved by Adams would need to be approved by the governor's office before they could be released.

Carver-Kimm said at one point in April she was told by Garrett to "hold" a document approved by Adams that contained information on the list of questions to be used by Test Iowa for the website evaluation.

"To this day, I don't know whether it's been released or not," she said.

Carver-Kimm, who called herself a "bulldog for public access to open records," said she also pushed to release emails from officials that came from their Emergency Command Center emails. These are new state email addresses that were set up when the state enacted emergency protocols earlier this year.

Carver-Kimm said she received a public information request in early April that specified the state's "normal" email addresses, not the ECC email addresses.

"I clearly saw that the information the reporter was looking for would not be in that person's personal emails because it was part of the emergency response," she said.

Carver-Kimm said she received approval from Adams for the ECC emails to be included in that specific request. But she said after that, the ECC emails were never searched again, and her inquiries to Adams as to whether these email addresses should be searched were not answered.

"I repeatedly asked, should we ask for those emails to be searched? And I was just ignored. I never received an answer. Never received an answer why we should not. Never received any kind of response. I was just ignored," she said.

According to the lawsuit, Carver-Kimm got pushback from Department of Public Health Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter for releasing documents requested by Iowa Public Radio, USA Today and the New Yorker regarding the Test Iowa program after the New Yorker "began asking questions critical of the State Hygienic Lab referencing the documents produced by Polly" in late May.

Reisetter sent Carver-Kimm an email asking how the New Yorker received those documents, questioning if producing them was "even legal."

Shortly after on June 4, Carver-Kimm said she told she was no longer allowed to answer public information requests.

She said the "final straw" was in early July when she responded to a request by Des Moines Register reporter Tony Leys for state pregnancy termination data, which she said was a "pretty standard request" for data that had been released in the past.

“So I didn't hesitate to gather the information, we've done it before, presented it to the Register," she said, "and then it came out with a story that was the Register released a story that was could be perceived as unflattering to the Reynolds administration.”

Carver-Kimm said after the story, which reported on the state's increase in abortions under the Reynolds administration, ran on July 10, she was contacted by the governor's office.

“After that came out, in the paper, I was part of an email conversation that asked how the Register got that information and that I should have contacted the governor's office before releasing it," she said. "They were clearly unhappy.”

Carver-Kimm said she was called into IDPH Director Clabaugh's office on July 15 and told she could either resign or be terminated due to department restructuring. She said she initially chose termination before switching to resigning after learning she would forfeit her vacation benefits if terminated.

“I was given absolutely no information about what the restructuring was and why they were restructuring, if someone else is going to fill my position," she said.

Carver-Kimm said at the time of her termination, five people were "doing the job I used to do by myself."

"That's not restructuring," she said. "That's a systematic and deliberate effort to thwart open communication."

She said she thinks the state Department of Public Health has the public's "best interests" in mind, but is concerned about the way the governor's office is using data.

“I feel that the governor's office chose to use the information that it was presented with from the department in the way that would best serve the governor's agenda and needs," she said.

State public health department spokesperson Amy McCoy declined to comment for this story, saying the department does not comment on pending litigation.

Gov. Reynolds' office released a statement Thursday afternoon from Chief of Staff Sara Craig.

"This lawsuit is without merit, and we will be working with the Iowa Attorney General's Office to respond in court." Craig said.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter