University foundation pushes legislation to seal some donor info

IOWA — Auniversity fund-raising foundation has proposed legislation that would amendIowa’s public records law to make some donor informationconfidential.

Bills introduced in early February in both the Iowastate Senate and House of Representatives would categorize records related tothe personal and financial information of donors as confidential, includingrecords ”disclosing the identity of a donor or a prospective donor.”

Susan Shullaw, spokeswoman for the University of IowaFoundation in Iowa City, confirmed that legal counsel and lobbyists for thefoundation drew up the proposed legislation.

According to Shullaw,the legislation is in large part a response to the Iowa Supreme Court decisionmade a year ago, which ruled that a similar foundation at Iowa State Universitywas a public agency subject to the open records law.

”Itseemed like, why not make every effort to see if we could get some protectionsfor our donors,” Shullaw said.

A statement released by thefoundation said the state’s current open record laws ”leaveunresolved questions about public disclosure” of donor information.According to the statement, the legislative amendments would ”remedy thisshortcoming.”

The proposed senate bill asks that records thatdisclose information about a donor’s ”personal, financial, estateplanning or gift planning matters” remain confidential.

According to Kathleen Richardson, executive director of the IowaFreedom of Information Council, early discussions on the legislation havereceived a sympathetic ear from legislators concerned about waning donations toIowa universities.

Richardson said the foundations seemed to beprimarily interested in keeping the financial information of donors secret,but ”the push may be spreading toprotect all donors’names.”

The Freedom ofInformation Council is not directly involved in the legislation and does notlobby, Richardson said.

In the June state supreme court case,Iowa State’s foundation was ordered to produce records for publicinspection. Donors could still request confidentiality; the foundations wouldthen withhold their names when responding to open records requests.

While the Iowa State University Foundation did not initiate thelegislative efforts, it is ”fully supportive of the bills,” said AnnWilson, a spokeswoman for the foundation.

”We are 100 percentbehind it,” she said.

But others are concerned the newlegislation will chip away at the court decision that ordered foundations tocomply with open records laws.

TheGazette, a daily paper in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, ran an editorial Wednesdayin response to the proposed legislation titled, ”Secrets jeopardize publictrust.”

The editorial said the legislation is an attempt to”rein in” the Iowa Supreme Court ruling.

”Lost inthe legislative rush to hide the names of donors is Iowa’s proud traditionof openness, an important tenet underscored by the Iowa Supreme Courtruling,” the editorial said. ”Iowans make no apologies, nor shouldthey, for keeping the public’s business on the table for all toview.”

Mark Gannon, one ofthe Iowa residents whose lawsuit against the Iowa State University Foundationled to the state Supreme Court ruling, said he understood the foundation’sefforts to keep private financial and personal information that”shouldn’t be kept public anyways.”

Butwhether the foundation’s legislative push was made out of genuine concernfor donors or as a ”greater smokescreen” to impede open recordsrequests is yet to be seen, Gannon said.

People ought to be able tomake donations anonymously, he said, ”but once they give it, we need to beable to see what it was given for and be able to trackit.”

Jennifer Sturm, editor in chief ofThe Daily Iowan, the student-runnewspaper at the University of Iowa, said the newspaper has not had a problemobtaining information from the university’s foundation.

Foundation officials have been forthcoming in the past, she said,but the newsroom would be concerned if the new legislation changes thepaper’s ”good relationship” with thefoundation.

”We’re constantly trying to keep on top ofmoney and if it’s actually helping students,” Sturm said. ”Ifit’s going to be harder for us to get to those numbers, it’s goingto be a big problem.”

Shullaw, the University of IowaFoundation spokeswoman, said the foundation is ”fully supportive ofopenness” in its record-keeping, but that foundation donors had expressedreal concern about the confidentiality of theirinformation.

”We would love for all donors to be public, but werecognize that a few donors –who tend to be the most generous donors– have the greatest concern about confidentiality,” Shullawsaid.

She said the proposed legislation is still in its early stages,but that the foundation is hopeful it will be considered in the statelegislature’s 2006session.

by Allison Retka, SPLC staff writer