SUNSHINE WEEK: University foundations' secrecy at odds with public's right to know

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

Many colleges and universities have foundations that handledonations, fundraising or research. And when money, meetings, big purchases andconstruction projects are occurring on or near college campuses, studentjournalists are eager to trackfoundations’ goings-on.

But for the last few years, the journalist’squest for open records and the university’s quest for donations haveproved at odds. University foundations are increasingly reluctant to hand overdocuments and records related to their financial dealings, and in some cases,have sought proactive measures to protect their donors from open recordsrequests.

The fund-raising foundation for the University of Iowa inIowa City proposed legislation last month that would amend Iowa’s publicrecords law to make some donor information confidential.

Billsintroduced in early February in both the Iowa state Senate

and Houseof Representatives would categorize records related to the personal andfinancial information of donors as confidential, including records”disclosing the identity of a donor or a prospective donor.”

Susan Shullaw, spokeswoman for the University of Iowa Foundation inIowa City, confirmed that legal counsel and lobbyists for the foundation drew upthe proposed legislation earlier this year.

According to Shullaw, thelegislation is in large part a response to the Iowa Supreme Court decision madea year ago, which ruled that a similar foundation at Iowa State University was apublic agency subject to the open records law.

“It seemedlike, why not make every effort to see if we could get some protections for ourdonors,” Shullaw said.

But proponents of open records areconcerned the new legislation will chip away at the state Supreme Courtruling.

Mark Gannon, one of the Iowa residents whose lawsuit againstthe Iowa State University Foundation led to the state Supreme Court ruling, saidhe understood the foundation’s efforts to keep private financial andpersonal information that “shouldn’t be kept publicanyways.”

But whether the foundation’s legislative pushwas made out of genuine concern for donors or as a “greatersmokescreen” to impede open records requests is yet to be seen, Gannonsaid.

People ought to be able to make donations anonymously, he said, “but once they give it, we need to be able to see what it was given forand be able to track it.”

A similar desire to track foundationrecords led North Dakota residents to successfully open the records of aresearch foundation associated with North Dakota State University in Fargo.

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A January opinion handed down by the state attorney general said theresearch foundation violated the state’s open records laws when itinitially denied an open records request for information about theuniversity’s handling of a wheat seed variety. The foundation laterdelayed producing the requested records.

The opinion determined thatthe North Dakota State University Research Foundation was a public entity thatmust adhere to open records laws. The foundation is as an “agent” ofthe university, the opinion said, “