Iowa district court orders ISU foundation to release documents

IOWA — After nearly four years battling with the Iowa State University Foundation, Arlen Nichols finally got access to the records for which he has been fighting.

In fact, he said he expects to gain access to “a helluva lot more than I ever expected.”

On June 13, the Iowa District Court for Story County ruled in favor of Nichols and co-plaintiff Mark Gannon, instructing the ISU Foundation, the university’s fundraising arm, to make available its public records for inspection and copying.

“Petitioners or their attorneys are hereby given full and complete access to all public records of Iowa State University Foundation,” the order said. “Petitioners and/or their lawyers shall have the right to examine all such public records at reasonable times and places to be agreed upon by the parties and their attorneys.”

The district court’s ruling came after the state’s supreme court in February ruled that the ISU Foundation was performing a government function through a contract with Iowa State University and therefore had to comply with the state’s open-records law.

The district court’s order also said Gannon, Nichols or their attorneys would be allowed to make copies and the foundation could charge a reasonable fee for duplicating documents.

The order requires the foundation to prove that a record is not public. And if disputes about the openness of a record require further action by the court, the foundation can be held accountable for any legal fees incurred by Gannon and Nichols if the foundation’s position is proven incorrect, the order said.

Gannon and Nichols, who had asked for legal fees in excess of $65,000, were also granted $25,000 in fees to be paid by the Board of Regents for the State of Iowa. However, because it is possible the two parties may be back in court disputing the openness of records, a final determination of fees will be determined at a later date.

Nichols’ and Gannon’s fight started in November 2001 after they were denied access to financial records of the foundation and the ISU Agricultural Foundation for the period from 1990 to 2001. They had also requested “correspondence, memoranda, meeting minutes, directors minutes, reports and the like explanatory of such transactions,” according to court records.

Nichols and Gannon filed their lawsuit in August 2002, claiming the foundation was a government body under the state’s open-records law and therefore its records were public, according to court documents.

A year later, in September 2003, Judge William C. Ostlund ruled against Nichols and Gannon. The pair appealed the trial court’s ruling and in February the Supreme Court of Iowa reversed the district court’s initial order and remanded the case to the trial court.

Dan Saftig, ISU Foundation president, said in a written statement that the group will honor requests for records the foundation believes are required to be turned over, but will continue to weigh the privacy rights of donors.

“There are no real surprises in this ruling,” Saftig said. “As we have since the [Iowa] Supreme Court ruling, we will continue to comply with all requests for records we believe we are obligated to disclose. We strive to remain accountable to the people of Iowa who have a vested interest in seeing this university prosper.

“As we go about the business of securing and managing private gift support for ISU, we will continue to carefully balance the public’s right to information with the privacy rights of donors.”

–By Sean Hill

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