Fighting to help you gain access to public records

By Carol Hunter
Des Moines Register executive editor

Casino gambling is not just any business.

Last year, gamblers plunked $13.7 billion into slot machines in Iowa, and casinos kept $1.3 billion of that.

Iowans know that because the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission maintains detailed public records about casino operations.

Casinos must obtain licenses from the commission, whose mission is “to protect the public and to assure the integrity of licensed facilities.” There’s so much money at stake that the state requires precautions to ward off potential infiltration by organized crime or other swindlers.

But two bills moving forward in the Legislature would keep secret some audit information now available to the public. Although basic information such as the amount wagered would still be available, the industry is pushing confidentiality for other information for competitive reasons, saying it amounts to trade secrets. Trade secrets are typically exempt from Iowa’s open records law, but again, casinos aren’t a typical industry.

As a recent Register editorial put it: “Gambling has the potential to wreak havoc on lives and communities, which is why we require them to operate in the light.”

The Register is dedicated to protecting the public’s right to know, through news coverage of attempts to keep information secret, through the bully pulpit of our editorial page and when necessary through litigation.

This work isn’t about making reporters’ and editors’ jobs easier. It’s about upholding the principle that the public should have access to records that the government maintains on the public’s behalf.

State law at first glance appears straightforward in protecting public access: “Every person shall have the right to examine and copy a public record and to publish or otherwise disseminate a public record or the information contained in a public record.”

But through the years, special interests have piled on a list of exceptions, now numbering 69.

“In spite of government officials’ pronouncements about supporting transparency, they are constantly looking for ways to shut the public out,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and a former Register opinion editor.

The Register and other open-records advocates wage a never-ending battle to ward off more exceptions and to enforce existing provisions.

For example, state law clearly bars government agencies from keeping lawsuit settlements secret. Yet for months, Crawford County Memorial Hospital, a public hospital owned by the county’s taxpayers, refused to release how much it paid a widower of a patient whose death was blamed on a botched colonoscopy.

It took legal action by the Carroll Daily Times Herald and the Freedom of Information Council to force the hospital to disclose the $500,000 settlement.

Another ongoing dispute involves the names of passengers on university planes piloted by Iowa State University President Steven Leath. A special state audit was conducted into his use of the planes, and he has admitted he flew them more than necessary, but the university refuses to release passenger names. The Register is pursuing their release in a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board.

Also of concern:

  • A bill is working its way through the Legislature that would make confidential the names of government volunteers. That could conceivably include volunteer firefighters, EMTs and people who do volunteer work with children. Such volunteer work is laudable, but the public should know volunteers’ identities and critical information such as criminal history.
  • The University of Iowa is citing federal copyright law to block release of video its employees shot during the 2008 floods.
  • Police departments across Iowa are now using body cameras to record video of officers’ interactions with the public, a welcome step toward greater transparency and accountability, which I believe in most instances will show officers have acted responsibly. But individual agencies are developing a patchwork of policies on when video will be released. With narrow exceptions to protect the identity of crime victims and informants, state law should require that body-camera video be made public. Otherwise, its potential value to help determine the truth and to build trust in police agencies will be lost.

“Government entities do not belong to the people who work for government,” Evans said. “The universities and state and local government belong to the people of Iowa.”

And the people of Iowa deserve access to the records produced by their government.

To learn more

  • The Iowa Freedom of Information Council can answer questions about Iowa’s open records and open meetings laws:, or 515-745-0041.
  • The Iowa Public Information Board has easy-to-use forms for asking questions or filing complaints: