Student editor questions foundation’s open records law compliance

Tips for obtaining information from reluctant public entities

  • Ifyou’re a journalist, write a story about how you were denied access to arecord.
  • If you’re not a journalist, contact local media and ask themto cover the situation.
  • Seek legal advice.
  • If your state governmenthas a freedom of information ombudsman, file a complaint with theombudsman’s office, or with another state official who deals withcompliance with open records laws.
  • Call the county attorney. In somestates, the county attorney can pursue open records violations.
  • Call theattorneys of the public entity that has denied you records and urge them toreason with their clients and have them provide the records.
  • File a lawsuitalleging a violation of open records.

Source: Kathleen Richardson,director of Iowa Freedom of Information Council

IOWA — Sevenmonths after a district court ruling that declared the records of a universityresearch foundation to be public, doubts persist as to the willingness of thefoundation to comply with open records requests.

Meanwhile, thefoundation denies rumors that it will pursue legislation in the Iowa GeneralAssembly that would clarify the existing open records law and further protectthe financial information of its donors.

In July 2005, the IowaDistrict Court of Story County issued a ruling that aligned with a state supremecourt ruling from February, which said that the Iowa State University Foundationwas performing a government function through a contract with Iowa StateUniversity and therefore had to comply with the state’s open-records law.

But Mark Gannon, one of the Iowa residents who first brought thelawsuit against the foundation, said the foundation’s compliance with openrecords laws to date is “not good enough.” And Tom Barton, theeditor in chief of the Iowa StateDaily, the student newspaper at Iowa State University in Ames, said hisnewsroom is still “hesitant and skeptical” about the intentions ofthe foundation and its willingness to provide requestedrecords.

“There is the feeling that the foundation is trying todo the best it can, considering the ruling, to keep as much information assecret as possible,” Bartonsaid.

After the courtdecision

In November, five months after the ruling, the pagesof the Iowa State Daily were strewnwith editorials and news content discussing the credibility of the ISUFoundation in the wake of the court’s decision.

TheDaily reported that an Oct. 21 letterfrom three university presidents sent to the Board of Regents, the governingbody of Iowa public universities, asked for the board’s support forlegislation that would safeguard the financial information ofdonors.

A Nov. 15 editorial mentioned the recent letter, then citedan incident from March 2005, where a review byThe Des Moines Register, a statewidenewspaper, revealed that money from the sale of an alumnus’ estate was notused for research and scholarships as indicated by the donor, but instead spenton car washes, alcohol and $760 in football tickets given to the Iowa SoybeanPromotion Board. More than $206,000 was misspent, according to records. Themoney was eventually repaid after an investigation and an audit.

“More secrecy in governmental functions is just asking forfraud, abuse and corruption, as has already been seen,” said theDaily editorial. “In our case,even with limited information, we’ve determined that money intended foreducation has gone to car washes, travel expenses, pizza andalcohol.”

The next day, theDaily published a letter submitted tothe paper by Gregory L. Geoffroy, president of Iowa State, which disputed theeditorial and claimed the letter to the Board of Regents was sent not to ensure“secrecy,” but with the intention of clarifying the existing openrecords law.

“The law does not specifically address the publicavailability of personal information about donors, and we would like to havelegislative clarification on that issue,” Geoffroy wrote in hisletter.

In response to the president’s letter, Barton published a column admitting to some errors in the editorial and said the university was “reasonable” in its request for legislation to protect donors.

No legislativeefforts

But representatives for the ISU Foundation and theBoard of Regents said that neither organization has plans to pursue legislationto clarify or alter the law.

“We are not pursuing anything thisyear,” said Andrew Baumert, associate director of governmental relationsfor Iowa State University and a registered lobbyist for the Boardof Regents in the statelegislature.

The ISU Foundation will not propose legislation either,according to Ann Wilson, the foundation’s director of communications. Butshe said protecting the financial information of its donors is a priority forthe foundation.

“It’s always an issue ofimportance,” she said. “It’s something we’re concernedabout.”


Barton,the editor of the Daily, said he agreedwith the university president that certain types of personal information aboutfoundation donors should be kept confidential. But he also said that it is inthe university’s best interest to keep an open and transparent recordspolicy so that the donors themselves can track the distribution of theirdonations.

In addition, Barton said that if a situation arose andthe newspaper needed rapid information from the foundation, he would not be ableto get access.

“We’ve run into situations wherewe’ve requested information and the foundation … has limited theinformation they have given us,” Barton said. “They put up a front.They put up obstacles and hinder our investigations. They do provide theinformation, but what they provide is not the information that was requested andthe information that we’re seeking.”

Not true, saidWilson, the spokeswoman for the foundation. The foundation has responded toevery request that has been made, she said.

“We intend tofollow the ruling,” Wilson said. “I can assure you ofthat.”

When public entities or institutions “drag theirfeet” in responding to information requests, there is no easy recourse,said Kathleen Richardson, director of the Iowa Freedom of InformationCouncil.

“Legally, they should have to be compliantimmediately,” she said. “Of course, their willingness to complywon’t be tested until somebody actually asks forrecords.”

Gannon, the Iowa resident who filed the lawsuitagainst the ISU Foundation, did just that last fall in the months following hiswin in the state trial court. He filed an open records request for some recentdonations as a “test case,” he said.

While the foundationdid respond to his request, he did not receive the records for two months. Thatresponse time is “not good enough,” Gannon said.

Heacknowledged the foundation’s efforts to comply with and clarify the openrecords law in the wake of the court ruling, but he said, “it’s notgoing to be easy to get what you want.”

Gannon would like tosee the foundation held accountable to a higher institution, preferably the IowaBoard of Regents. He said he also wants a policy procedure to facilitate thefoundation’s response to open records requests.

The lawsuit andthe district court’s ruling have taken steps to rein in thefoundation’s penchant for privatization and secrecy, Gannon said, but morecan be done to open its records and procedures.

“I knowthey’re on their toes now,” he said. “They monkeyed around inthe past, but they’ll be less likely to do so in the future.”

by Allison Retka, SPLC staff writer