Court denies access to Iowa State foundation records

IOWA— A state district judge ruled last week that two open-recordsadvocates cannot access financial documents of the fund-raising foundation forIowa State University, but the two say the fight is far from over. “Wewill take this all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to,” said ArlenNichols, a retired Des Moines businessman who is leading the fight to open moreof the foundation’s records. The Iowa State University Foundation is the private fund-raiser for the university, holdingapproximately $234 million in endowments, according to foundationofficials.Less than a week after a judge’s Sept. 11 decision to dismisstheir lawsuit, Nichols and Mark Gannon, the former land manager for ISU, arealready preparing for appeals court.The lawsuit stems from a request foraccess to minutes from foundation meetings, a list of corporate donors of morethan $25,000 and a list of foundation expenses. Gannon, whopreviously worked to make the ISU Foundation acknowledge mishandling ofland donations, said the suit is a way of finally taking those mistakes tocourt.Because the court found the ISU Foundation was a private,nonprofit and nongovernmental body, it was not subject to the same open-recordslaws as the university for which it raises money.State District Judge WilliamC. Ostlund ruled against the petitioners, but he did acknowledge that thefight is just beginning.”This issue has troubled other jurisdictions andmay well lead to consideration and definition either at the appellate level orthrough statutory refinement,” Ostlund wrote. “The court recognizes both thepotential scope of the Petitioner’s request and the necessity of Respondent’sresistance.”Journalists and activists around the country have requestedaccess to university investment and fund-raising records with mixed results. Recently, manystudent activist groups have petitioned to make their universities discloseinvestment records and divest from certain corporations they claim are immoral orviolate human rights. But university foundations are often unwilling to divulgesuch information.The ISU Foundation argues that it must uphold investorconfidentiality to raise funds.”This is private money going to a publicuniversity,” said Jason Menke, associate director of communications at the ISUFoundation in Ames. “If we open our records, investors will not feel safedonating.”Nichols and Gannon claim the ISU Foundation is so intertwinedwith the university –– the president of the foundation is on theuniversity’s board of regents –– it should be subject to the sameopen-records laws as the university. For its services, the universitypays nearly $750,000 a year to the foundation, which raised $54.7 million forthe school last year, foundation officials said.Public scrutiny of theISU Foundation increased two years ago when Gannon blew the whistle on thefoundation for selling a farm donated by Marie Powers to the university’sAgronomy Department for research purposes. The university acknowledged itsmistake in selling the $1.2 million farm but never corrected its misspending ofthe money. Gannon resigned following the mix-up, claiming the ISU Foundationtried to use the proceeds of the farm to bail out a financially strappedconstruction project. Iowa State denied Gannon’s claim. A University of Iowafoundation made a similar mistake, selling a farm donated in 1997, and was suedby a farmer who was planning to utilize his right to work the land for 8 moreyears, as had been specified in the donor’s will.Following theseincidents, freedom of information advocates supported several bills in the stateLegislature that would require university foundations in Iowa to disclose theirrecords –– to no avail. Since the bills failed, the Iowa Freedom ofInformation Council and the Iowa Newspaper Association have held talks with theISU Foundation in hopes of working out an open-records compromise. Unlike Nichols and Gannon, Bill Monroe, executive director of thenewspaper association is satisfied with the results of the dialogue, saying theISU Foundation has been cooperative. After six meetings between freedom ofinformation groups and the ISU Foundation, although donor information remainsconfidential, the foundation has agreed to release most otherrecords.”[The ISU Foundation is] coming forth with a lot of informationbecause they think it’s the right thing to do,” Monroe said. “They’ve even goneso far as to give presentations to other university foundations, encouragingthem to be more forthcoming with public-records requests.”Nichols andGannon, however, said they think the foundation is just trying to placate thepublic.”Almost every record involves a donor; they can claim donorconfidentiality whenever they need to,” Gannon said. “Their new policies lookgood on paper, but they haven’t changed anything.”