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Reynolds settles three lawsuits accusing her of violating Iowa's public records law

 Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks during a news conference Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Johnston.
Olivia Sun
The Des Moines Register via AP
The lawsuits accused Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds of illegally delaying the release of public records.

The state of Iowa agreed Wednesday to pay more than $174,000 in attorney fees to settle three lawsuits against Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds that accused her of failing to follow the state’s public records law.

The settlements follow an Iowa Supreme Court ruling from April in which the justices unanimously agreed the governor’s office can be sued for not providing public documents in a timely manner and allowed the lawsuits to continue. The parties have decided to settle the lawsuits instead of continuing the fight in court.

Reynolds’ office did not provide certain public records for more than a year after they were requested by journalists, and only provided the documents after lawsuits were filed. The settlement agreements state the governor and her staff are not admitting to violating any laws or policies.

The three-member State Appeal Board approved the settlements Wednesday in a 2-1 vote, with Democratic State Auditor Rob Sand voting no.

In a statement, Sand said Iowa’s public records law requires people who violate it to pay the costs associated with the violation and pay a fine. He said it also allows an official to be removed from office if they commit the same offense twice within one term.

The settlements don’t allow those penalties to be applied.

“This is a brazen scam by those whose salaries are paid by taxpayers, to skirt a law requiring their own personal responsibility for the fees and fines for hiding public records and using taxpayer funds instead,” Sand said.

Reynolds’ office released a statement Wednesday in response to the settlements.

“The COVID-19 response put unprecedented demands on the governor’s team to meet the immediate needs of Iowans,” said Kollin Crompton, deputy communications director for Reynolds’ office. “As a result, responses to requests were unintentionally delayed, which is not acceptable. Our office has assessed our internal processes and we continue to reevaluate the process to improve timeliness.”

One of the lawsuits was filed in December 2021 by the Iowa Capital Dispatch, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, and Laura Belin, who runs the left-leaning blog Bleeding Heartland.

The state will pay $135,136 to the ACLU of Iowa for representing the plaintiffs. This settlement also allows the district court to address disputes over public records between the plaintiffs and the governor’s office for the next year.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said he's pleased with the result.

“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 the outcome of this case made it abundantly clear the governor cannot disregard the law either.”

Thomas Story, staff attorney for the ACLU of Iowa, said the case should send a message to all government officials.

“Nobody’s above the law," Story said. "It starts at the top, and it goes all the way down. State [and] local government entities should take notice that this is our open records law, and it applies, and it is strong.”

Suzette Rasmussen sued in August 2021as she was seeking records related to the contract for Test Iowa. The state has agreed to pay a total of $38,972.75 for Rasmussen’s two lawsuits—one against Reynolds, and one against the Iowa Department of Public Health.

This story was updated Monday, June 26 at 3:55 p.m. to include new statements from plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits. It was originally published Wednesday, June 21.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter