After open records dispute, Iowa school boards group says it will release e-mails

IOWA – Afterdebate over what types of e-mail records can be disclosed under Iowa’sopen-records law, the Iowa Association of School Boards is preparing todisclose documents requested by the DesMoines Register.

Since September, the Register has sought the disclosure of e-mails between IASB staffmembers, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin and Michael Perik, a Harkin campaign contributor,whose companies have collected more than $6 million from IASB through federallyfunded contracts, according to a Registerreport.

IASB is a private, nonprofitorganization that represents local school boards. The Iowa legislature made itsubject to the state’s open-records law as of July 1, 2010, following the startof separate investigations by the FBI and the Iowa Legislative OversightCommittee over questionable spending.

IASB argued that it did not have torelease documents created before July 1 and that releasing the documents couldalso set dangerous precedent, according to the Register’s report.

IowaAttorney General Tom Miller declined to issue an opinion on whether theopen-records law applied to pre-July records. Under Iowa law, the attorneygeneral does not have to give an opinion on issues that could potentially go tocourt.

VeronicaStalker, interim executive director of IASB, said the organization is nowpreparing to release the requested documents.

“We arecompiling everything,” Stalker said. “[The Register]narrowed the scope of their requests to certain days. We are preparing thosefor them and have every intent to comply.”

Theoversight committee met with IASB on Jan. 25 and 26 to discuss issues includingthe group’s compliance with records requests.

Stalkersaid IASB had not received clarity on whether the requested documents wereprotected and that IASB is “very wiling to comply with requests for openrecords.”

“Our position has been that wewould provide all information that was not deemed confidential,” Stalker said.

Stalker also said IASB would takethat approach until being told differently by the oversight committee.

Clark Kauffman, the Register’s reporter covering the story,said the newspaper made four requests for records since Sept. 14, one of whichIASB complied with shortly after it was filed.

“What they’ve agreed to do is toconsider giving us some of these records, which before I don’t even think wewere at that point,” Kauffman said, adding that there is still reluctance torelease some e-mails. “We hope they won’t simply take advantage of everypossible exemption to the law and will instead say, ‘Well there’s no reason tokeep this information confidential, even if we think we legally could.’”

Kauffmansaid there are two roadblocks that IASB could use to prevent the Register from accessing the e-mails. Aprovision in Iowa law allows the reviewer of documents to charge for the costof time to review the records and determine whether they will release them.Kauffman said the Register wouldessentially be paying for IASB’s lawyers to withhold the information.

“The otherthing that they’ve indicated publicly that they’re going to do probably in somecases, is before they give us the records they’ll give other people theopportunity to go to court and file an injunction to block the release of therecords,” Kauffman said. “At which point it then becomes a fight between the Register and whoever authored the e-mailthat wants to keep it secret.”

The Register can get around these issues byrequesting the documents directly from the oversight committee—if the committeegets access to them.

State Rep. DawnPettengill (R-Mount Auburn), a member of the oversight committee, confirmedthat the committee does have an interest in reviewing the same documents the Register has requested.

“We do feel that every dollar that goesthrough that association is a tax dollar and makes them open to public recordsand open meetings laws,” Pettengill said.

Kauffmansaid that obtaining the documents from the oversight committee does two things.

“It gets[IASB] off the hook for setting some sort of precedent for giving us recordsthat they think they can withhold,” Kauffman said. “It also gets us off thehook from paying hundreds of dollars for them to simply consider releasing someof these records.”