Iowa ‘sunshine’ law handbook now available

The most popular guide to Iowa’s public meetings and public records law has been updated for 2017 and is now available for purchase.

The Iowa Open Meetings, Open Records Handbook is published by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and is the go-to resource for government officials, journalists and interested citizens.

The handbook contains the complete text of Chapter 21 (the public meetings law), Chapter 22 (the public records law) and Chapter 23 (the Iowa Public Information Board law).

In addition, the handbook contains helpful questions and answers, rules of thumb to guide government officials and citizens, and other resources people can use.

Copies of the handbook are $2 each and can be ordered from the Iowa FOI Council in three ways. The price includes shipping.

  • Email: IowaFOICouncil@gmail.com
  • Postal mail: P.O. Box 8002, Des Moines, IA 50301
  • Telephone: 515.745.0041

Payment in advance is not required. An invoice will be sent with each order.

Thousands of copies of the handbook are distributed each year as part of the FOI Council’s public education efforts to help officials and the public understand the terms of the state’s “sunshine” laws.

Judge’s order forces hospital to comply with law

District Judge Steven J. Adreasen issued an order on Friday, Feb. 24, directing the county hospital in Denison to release the settlement agreement that ended a medical malpractice lawsuit against the hospital.

The order came after a court hearing requested by the Carroll Daily Times Herald. Collin Davison, an attorney from Mason City, represented the newspaper and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council during the hearing.

The settlement grew out of the death of Carole Christiansen, who underwent a colonoscopy at the Crawford County Memorial Hospital in Denison.

Christiansen’s estate sued the hospital, and the case ended with a negotiated settlement between the estate and the hospital’s insurance carrier.

Hospital administrator Bill Bruce had refused numerous requests from journalists and a Denison resident to release a copy of the settlement agreement. He cited as justification the probate judge’s order sealing the contents of Mrs. Christiansen’s probate court file.

Iowa’s public records law specifically prohibits secret settlements.

Chapter 22.13 of the Iowa Code says, “When a government body reaches a final, binding, written settlement agreement that resolves a legal dispute claiming monetary damages, equitable relief, or a violation of a rule or statute, the government body shall, upon request and to the extend allowed under applicable law, prepare a brief summary of the resolution of the dispute indicating the identity of the parties involved, the nature of the dispute, and the terms of the settlement, including any payments made by or on behalf of the government body and any actions to be taken by the government body. … The settlement agreement and any required summary shall be a public record.”

Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said in a statement after the court hearing on Friday:

“The Iowa Freedom of Information Council is grateful that after 10 months of ignoring its legal obligations, the Crawford County Memorial Hospital has finally released the terms of the settlement in the litigation growing out of the tragic death of Mrs. Christiansen.

“We just regret that the FOI Council and the Daily Times Herald had to go to the expense of hiring a lawyer to achieve what Iowa’s public records says in crystal-clear language — that government entities like the Crawford County hospital cannot enter into secret settlements in lawsuits.”

Evans continued: “The settlement was reached with the Christiansen family last April. Her estate was not closed and sealed until June. That provided two months for the hospital to release the settlement documents. But it did not.

“Once the documents in the probate court file were sealed, the hospital took the inexplicable position that the order sealing the court file trumped the open records law and documents that were in the possession of the hospital. The probate file included details about the Christiansens’ real estate holdings, but the Crawford County Recorder’s Office never tried to put the family’s real estate records in the courthouse off limits to the public.

“Iowa’s law that prohibits secret settlements involving government was written by the Legislature because lawmakers were keenly aware that the public should not be kept in the dark about these matters — even if the details prove embarrassing to government entities.”

Here is the Carroll Daily Times Herald’s report on the court hearing and settlement agreement:

DTH wins court fight
for secret settlement details

The Denison hospital revealed a $500,000 wrongful-death settlement on Friday that it had kept secret for months after the Daily Times Herald threatened to take legal action against the hospital to force its disclosure.

Crawford County Memorial Hospital and its insurer paid the money to the estate of Carole Christiansen, a 67-year-old Arion woman who died of complications from a botched colonoscopy at the hospital in 2014.

As part of the agreement, the hospital paid $100 to the estate “to keep the existence and terms of this settlement and the underlying negotiations confidential,” even though public entities are barred by law from engaging in confidential settlements.

Bill Bruce, the hospital’s chief executive, said this morning that he doesn’t know whether a hospital employee drafted the agreement or reviewed it before it was approved. Further, he refused to ask his employees whether any of them reviewed it.

“I don’t have a need to do that research,” he said. “I didn’t write it. I can tell you that. Bill Bruce didn’t write it.”

Brad Bonner, the hospital’s general counsel, did not respond this morning to an email asking whether he had reviewed the settlement before its approval.

A judge approved the settlement in April and sealed it from public view. Since then, hospital officials have denied multiple requests from residents and reporters to reveal the details of the settlement and claimed the judge’s order barred them from doing so, even though the confidentiality clause contained an exception that allows its public release to comply with Iowa law.

Bruce said he was not aware of the exception and has repeatedly dismissed claims that he was violating the state’s open records law: “We’re caught in the middle on this.”

The Times Herald filed a court motion in December that asked a judge to direct the hospital to release the settlement, and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council joined the fray and paid for an attorney to represent the newspaper. On Friday, a judge issued an order — that had been agreed upon by the hospital, Christiansen’s husband and the Times Herald — to release the settlement.

“The Iowa Freedom of Information Council is grateful that after 10 months of ignoring its legal obligations, the Crawford County Memorial Hospital has finally released the terms of the settlement in the litigation growing out of the tragic death of Mrs. Christiansen,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the council.

“We just regret that the FOI Council and the Daily Times Herald had to go to the expense of hiring a lawyer to achieve what Iowa’s public records law says in crystal-clear language — that government entities like the Crawford County hospital cannot enter into secret settlements in lawsuits.”

The hospital has a recent history of secrecy. It fought for a year to keep the names of volunteers who drive patients to and from the hospital confidential but relented in July when the Iowa Public Information Board ruled the names were a public record.

A Denison resident had requested the names because one of the volunteers was a convicted sex offender.

The hospital also has refused to provide full supporting documents for its board of trustees meetings in advance of those meetings. The law does not require it to, but other local government entities publish the documents online several days in advance of their meetings.

“Among the more important charges of a newspaper is holding your government officials accountable,” Times Herald co-owner Douglas Burns said. “We take seriously our responsibility to drag public documents from the darkness when needed. In this era of cost-cutting and slashes to newsrooms, far too many media organizations are looking the other way on matters like this instead of directing limited resources toward meeting a solemn responsibility.

“Our readers and the west-central Iowa public can rest assured that the Daily Times Herald, as long as it is owned by this family, will remain a vigilant watchdog of your tax dollars and all government bodies. As much as anything we’ve done in recent years, this episode demonstrates that.”

Evans also pledged to wage future fights in court for the release of public records when necessary.

“Iowa’s law that prohibits secret settlements involving government was written by the Legislature because lawmakers were keenly aware that the public should not be kept in the dark about these matters — even if the details prove embarrassing to government entities,” he said.

Hicks moves into FOI Council presidency

Lynn Hicks, the opinion editor of The Des Moines Register, will become president of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council for 2017.

He replaces Dave Busiek, news director of KCCI-TV in Des Moines.

Zack Kucharski, executive editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, moves up to first vice president for 2017.

Keith Bliven, news director of KTIV-TV in Sioux City, joins the Iowa FOI Council’s board of trustees as the organization’s second vice president.

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council is a 40-year-old education and advocacy organization made up of journalists, lawyers, educators and other citizens committed to open and transparent government in Iowa.

The council publishes the Iowa Open Meetings, Open Records Handbook, a guide to the state’s open-government laws. Several thousand copies of the handbook are distributed statewide each year.

The council also is designated by the Iowa Supreme Court to coordinate the state’s Expanded News Media Coverage program, which allows photographers and other digital journalists to work inside state courtrooms under most circumstances.

State Patrol releases video from 2015 arrest

By BRET HAYWORTH
Sioux City Journal

A state trooper used the barrel of his rifle to poke a suspect in the shoulder blade to subdue him at the end of a police chase in rural Plymouth County 18 months ago, according to an open records report the Iowa State Patrol released Friday, Dec. 23, 2016.

The Iowa State Patrol also released a dash cam video of the June 21, 2015 incident involving Shanne Arre of Le Mars, who fled after police tried to pull him over for speeding.

In January 2016, the State Patrol acknowledged Trooper Jeremy Probasco injured Arre with his rifle after Arre showed “passive resistance.” But the patrol withheld the video of the incident and also didn’t detail how the weapon was used or what injury Arre suffered, saying doing so would jeopardize Arre’s right to a fair trial.

With the resolution earlier this month of state charges against Arre, the State Patrol released the “portion of the trooper’s dashcam video that shows the discovery of Arre’s crashed car and the search and apprehension of Arre is being released to provide additional information to supplement the immediate facts and circumstances that were previously released.”

The video and additional information was released as a result of a freedom of information request filed by the Associated Press.

Just before midnight on June 21, 2015, Arre, then 28, failed to stop after a Plymouth County sheriff’s deputy tried to pull him over for speeding. The deputy followed in pursuit through southeastern Plymouth County, eventually joined by the state trooper and police officers from Kingsley and Remsen.

After driving down gravel roads and into farm fields, Arre crashed his vehicle into a fence and ditch. He then fled on foot. Officers found him hiding in tall grass, with the only light coming from patrol car lights and flashlights, so “the officers did not know if the suspect was armed,” according to the report released Friday.

“Arre moved his hands so that they were hidden in the grass, and it appeared to the trooper that Arre was either going to push himself up off the ground and/or grab a weapon. The trooper did not have time to transition to a taser or asp baton. The trooper poked Arre once with the barrel of the rifle, into the soft tissue area of the shoulder blade, in order to gain control of Arre and prevent him from pushing up off the ground or grabbing a weapon,” the report said.

After Arre was arrested, a knife was found in the grass.

The rifle barrel left a mark between Arre’s shoulder blades and a scrape on the left side of his back. He was offered and refused treatment for the visible injuries, according to the report.

Arre was cited for eluding or attempting to elude, a felony charge, and second-offense operating while intoxicated, an aggravated misdemeanor. He later pleaded guilty to those charges.

After being released from the Plymouth County Jail in September 2015, Arre was arrested in Woodbury County on two Class B felony controlled substance violations and a Class D felony, according to the report from the State Patrol. Those charges were subsequently dismissed and Arre was indicted in U.S. District Court for Nebraska for the same or similar acts.

The federal court ordered Arre to reside at a residential treatment facility and undergo drug treatment. As a result, Arre was not available to appear in court on the state charges in Plymouth County. At different times, a warrant was issued for Arre for failure to appear on the state charges and on one occasion, his attorney needed additional time to locate Arre in the federal system, according to the state report.

In November, Arre pleaded guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to 24 months in prison, with the sentence to commence in January.

On Dec. 6, 2016, he pleaded guilty in Plymouth County District Court to the charge of eluding as a Class D felony and received a five-year prison sentence to run concurrently with his federal prison sentence. He also pleaded guilty to the charge of OWI second offense, and was sentenced to 365 days in jail, with all but seven days suspended.

The Iowa State Patrol’s delay in releasing the dash cam video and more details about the unusual show of force by a trooper led the Iowa Freedom of Information Council in [January 2016] to send a letter accusing the patrol of “not meeting the letter or the spirit” of the open records law.

The video can be seen here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gn4raldZc8I

Appeals court levies fines in meetings lawsuit

This article was written and transmitted by the Associated Press on Dec. 21, 2016.

 

In a decision likely to create concern among many members of boards, commissions and councils, the Iowa Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that three county supervisors serving as trustees of an agriculture drainage district must pay thousands of dollars in fines and attorney fees for violating the state’s open meetings laws.

The case centers on two meetings held in November 2013 by three members of the Harrison County Board who also serve as trustees of a local drainage district.

Robert Smith, Walter Utman and Gaylord Pitt were discussing whether to rebuild a levee near Modale to hold back Missouri River floodwaters. A group of farmers were upset after the levee failed in 2011 and flooded their farm fields.

After the trustees were threatened with legal action by farmers, the trustees closed a portion of their meetings on Nov. 7 and Nov. 14 to discuss possible litigation.

Two of the farmers, James Olinger and Larry Meyer, sued in November 2013, claiming that the meetings violated Iowa’s open meetings laws.

A district court judge found that an open meetings violation occurred but also determined that the trustees went into a closed meeting on the advice of their secretary, who said their attorney recommended it and that they in good faith attempted to comply with the open meetings laws.

The judge imposed a fine on the drainage district but did not individually find the trustees liable based on their good-faith defense.

Appeals court justices found that the reason cited for the closed meetings — to discuss strategy with counsel in matters involving litigation — did not apply since the trustees’ attorney was not present.

“Here, two meetings were held, twice the trustees voted to go into closed session, and both times there was no statutory basis for closing the session,” the court ruled. “This was more than a ‘procedural irregularity,’ which resulted in the actual exclusion of persons from the meeting.”

The court said the trustees may not have known their actions violated the open meetings laws, but it found that ignorance is no defense.

The court fined each of the three members $200 for the two open meeting violations and concluded that they must individually pay attorney fees, which Jessica Zupp, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said will total nearly $25,000.

Zupp said the court’s ruling “puts some teeth back into the open meetings statute and reminds our elected leaders that they are accountable to the citizens and to the voters.”

The trustees may seek a rehearing before the full Iowa Court of Appeals and ask the Iowa Supreme Court to consider an appeal.

Here is the text of the Court of Appeals decision: HarrisonCounty.AppealsCourt

Leath’s use of ISU planes involves ‘shades of gray’

By Jeff Charis-Carlson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Dec. 13, 2016

 

The Iowa Board of Regents’ chief auditor announced Monday that some uses of aircraft by the president of Iowa State University “enter shades of gray” as to whether they violate regent and university policy.

The board president, however, said that ISU President Steve Leath has admitted that mistakes were made, has reimbursed the university for any questionable flights and deserves the board’s continued backing.

“President Leath’s acknowledgment that he takes full responsibility for the issues identified in the audit and that he should have been more transparent about the use of the plane reassures this board — and I hope all Iowans — that the president deserves our continued trust and support,” Bruce Rastetter, president of the board, said Monday during a meeting in Ankeny.

The regents met Monday to discuss their internal auditors’ examination of four years’ worth of flights taken by Leath and other ISU administrators. The board also met in closed session to evaluate Leath.

“As you are all aware, we do report whenever we determine whether there is a clear violation of university or board policy,” Todd Stewart, chief audit executive, told the board Monday. “Many times these are clear-cut, black-and-white determinations. In still other cases, they enter shades of gray. President Leath’s use of university aircraft in at least a few instances falls within this category, while most were entirely business related.”

The regents voted unanimously in October to direct the board’s internal auditors to expand their earlier review of travel and equipment policies into a broader independent audit.

Stewart said the report presented Monday did not include any assessment of whether the flights in question violated state law, but the auditors did include several policy recommendations for the board to consider moving forward.

Officials with the Office of the State Auditor are waiting on the results of the regents’ internal audit before deciding whether to move forward with any additional audit of their own, Stewart said.

In open session, the regents offered nothing but praise for Leath’s public admission of having made mistakes and his willingness to learn from them.

“If we can make something that we regret and you regret be a better thing for the university in the future — glory hallelujah! Because I’ll be right there supporting it,” said Regent Larry McKibben. “And the fact that you have said what you said today really impresses me. That you are that kind of a leader that will acknowledge (what) all of us ought to do when we have these kinds of circumstances arise.”

Regent Subash Sahai, who has been publicly critical of Leath in the past, was absent from Monday’s meeting due to illness.

Future of ISU Flight Service

Although the regents offered Leath their continued support Monday, the future for ISU Flight Service is uncertain. The board has called for a comprehensive evaluation of whether the service continues to offer the best use of state-owned resources.

“There’s no doubt that Flight Services has benefited the university in the past,” Leath told reporters after the meeting. “The question actually is: Is there an alternative delivery service that makes sense at this time? … There is no doubt that in the world we live in — especially in athletics, who are the primary users for recruiting and other things — private aircraft play a hugely important role in large universities.”

Regent auditors described Flight Service as a fee-for-service unit that does not depend on external funding to operate. The budget for the service has more than doubled during Leath’s time at the university — from $394,000 in fiscal year 2012 to $880,000 in fiscal year 2016.

Leath, who has a pilot’s license, said in September that he no longer will fly any state-owned craft. He added Monday that, without regular time in a cockpit as part of his job, he probably will not have enough time in the air to keep his skill level adequate and his certification valid.

With only two pilots left certified to fly the Cirrus, Leath said the university will be looking to sell the aircraft. The plane, which had a price tag of nearly $500,000, was paid for by funds that ISU Foundation officials have said were under the university president’s discretion.

Leath has said previously that he does not intend to claim a deduction on his taxes for these reimbursements.

Leath’s office and the Greater University Fund accounted for 28 percent of the miles flown by ISU Flight Service from January 2012 to October 2016, according to the report. The rest of the miles flown came through the Athletics Department (43 percent), academics (11 percent), the ISU Foundation (8 percent), administration (6 percent) and Flight Service (4 percent).

Questionable flights

Auditors found that Leath had flown on a university-owned aircraft 181 times since 2012 — 72 times on the Cirrus SR22, 65 times on the university’s King Air 350 and 44 times on the King Air 200, which the university owned before buying the 350.

Leath said he recently reimbursed the university for more than $19,000 to cover the costs of several of the flights flagged by the auditors. The check was made out to the ISU Foundation, he said, so that the money eventually could be distributed to the appropriate university accounts.

“I recognize that I used the university planes more frequently than was absolutely necessary and should have been more transparent about my use,” he said. “Moving forward, I will be more thoughtful, and I will work to ensure that any time the university planes are used, it is in the very best interest of Iowa State.”

Leath said he reimbursed the university for a March 2014 flight in which he picked up and dropped off his brother in Elmira, N.Y., en route to the NCAA basketball tournament. Flight Service had scheduled a refueling stop in Elmira in advance of the trip, but the auditors found the return stop in Elmira would not have been necessary other than to drop off passengers.

“Even though there was no additional cost incurred by the university, I understand why inviting my brother and his partner on the plane could be perceived as inappropriate,” he said. “As a result, I have paid for the amount that Flight Service would have attributed to my brother and his partner.”

Leath said he is planning to reimburse the university for the multiple training flights ISU’s insurance carrier required for his certification on the Cirrus. Although Leath had a pilot’s license when he became ISU president, his training on the Cirrus took place during his time at the Ames-based university.

“I see why my use of the Cirrus for training may be viewed as a personal benefit,” he said. “I have since asked Flight Service for a bill for the Cirrus and paid that bill.”

Leath said he also reimbursed the university for two of the seven trips to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for medical visits.

“At the time, I believed it was appropriate because I had to get back to Ames for important university commitments,” Leath said. “Even though this was within policy, I told (Regent Executive Director Bob Donley) that I would feel more comfortable if I paid for those flights myself, which I have done.”

The auditors said that the regents do not have a policy concerning an annual physical for university presidents or whether any associated travel expenses would be covered by the university.

Iowa casinos join lawsuit to keep audits secret

By Jason Clayworth
Des Moines Register
Dec. 14, 2016

A group of state-regulated casinos has joined a lawsuit that would keep confidential their annual audits, which are records that have been available to the public for nearly 30 years.

The audits have been used for decades to help report about the financial stability of Iowa gambling operations, which last year generated more than $312 million in gambling taxes and nearly $40 million to charities.

The information is released under a section of Iowa law enacted in 1989 and has previously helped shape conversation about the need for more gambling in Iowa. It is of particular interest to communities and nonprofits that depend on gambling taxes or charitable contributions to help provide services to their constituents.

For example, much of Polk County’s annual $26 million cut of casino profits is used to help pay for the Iowa Events Center, while dozens of charitable groups like United Way also receive annual grant allocations.

But in documents filed in Polk County District Court seeking a permanent injunction against the audits being released, 16 of Iowa’s 19 state-regulated casinos argue financial reports provided annually to state gambling regulators serve no public purpose. The information amounts to trade secrets that should be considered exempt from an Iowa law that mandates government transparency, the casinos argue.

The lawsuit was filed after Patrick Fox, an executive of Grand Traverse Band Economic Development — which is part of three Native American casinos in Michigan — requested the documents.

“We have no problem giving that information to our regulators, but it shouldn’t be given to our competitors,” said Wes Ehrecke, president of the Iowa Gaming Association, which represents all 19 of Iowa’s state-regulated casinos.

Ehrecke said his group will additionally lobby lawmakers this year to change the law to specifically make the reports secret.

Some question the thought behind the lawsuit. That contingent includes Wild Rose, which owns three Iowa casinos and abstained from joining the lawsuit.

Some of the detail in the Iowa reports is already made public in federal reports through filings required by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. But the most important point, they said, is that public transparency has a longtime record that has served Iowa well without harm to casinos.

“At this point, we didn’t see the benefit of the injunction,” said Jamie Buelt, a Wild Rose Casino spokeswoman. “Since the first gaming licenses were awarded, the financial statements have been public information. We’re not sure what’s changed.”

Attorneys for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller declined to defend the longtime release of the audits. In an answer filed in response to the lawsuit, Miller’s office took no position on whether the information is confidential or fails to serve a public purpose.

“If the court so determines, (the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission) will refrain from releasing the information requested,” Miller’s office said in court documents.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the effort to squelch information from public release is part of an ongoing and concerning pattern.

Evans has recently spoken against efforts by Iowa State University to make secret the list of passengers who travel on its planes. His council also launched a battle against a state rule that is now being reconsidered that makes it illegal to publish birth and death records.

“The thing the public hears with increasing frequency is that letting the public in on these things will put them at a competitive disadvantage or harm the entities,” Evans said. “The ones who would be left in the dark going forward is the public.”

Prairie Meadows ruling

Prairie Meadows casino in Altoona does not have to abide by the state’s open records law since it no longer owes debt to Polk County, according to an opinion the staff of the Iowa Public Information Board has recommended its board adopt Thursday.

The Des Moines Register sought an opinion from the board after the casino — which earlier this year lost its federal nonprofit status — declined to release records pertaining to contracts of its top executives.

The casino, whose board is appealing the IRS decision to yank its nonprofit status, said it no longer has to abide by the state’s open records law because of a definition of “government body” in the law. Facilities that have “indebtedness” are required to abide. The casino — which operates from a facility owned by Polk County — no longer owes debt, the casino noted.

The Register argued “indebtedness” is a broad term used in other sections of Iowa law to reference general liabilities or risks the public holds in relationship to a facility. The casino’s actions could directly and adversely affect taxpayers, which maintains “indebtedness,” the newspaper argued.

The Iowa Public Information Board is expected to vote on the matter during a meeting that begins at 1 p.m. Thursday [Dec. 17, 2016] in the third-floor conference room of the Wallace Building, 502 E. Ninth St. in Des Moines.

These Iowa casinos that have joined the lawsuit (listed by location):

Altoona: Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino
Bettendorf: Isle Casino Hotel
Burlington: Catfish Bend Casino
Council Bluffs: Ameristar Casino
Council Bluffs: Harrah’s Casino
Council Bluffs: Horseshoe Casino
Dubuque: Diamond Jo Casino
Dubuque: Mystique Casino
Marquette: Lady Luck Casino
Northwood: Diamond Jo Worth Casino
Osceola: Lakeside Hotel Casino
Riverside: Grand Falls Casino Resort
Riverside: Rhythm City Casino
Riverside: Riverside Casino & Golf Resort
Sioux City: Hard Rock Hotel & Casino
Waterloo: Isle Casino Hotel

These Iowa casinos are not plaintiffs in the lawsuit:

Emmetsburg: Wild Rose Casino & Resort
Clinton: Wild Rose Casino & Resort
Jefferson: Wild Rose Casino & Resort

All Iowa criminal trials should be open to public

This editorial appeared in The Des Moines Register on Dec. 15, 2016:

Imagine a court system in which people can plead not guilty to crime and then have their case decided by a judge based on a review of evidence that by law must be kept secret.

That could very well happen in the sexual exploitation trial of Mary Beth Haglin, a 24-year-old substitute teacher who has acknowledged having a months-long affair with a 17-year-old student, and discussed the particulars of that relationship on “Inside Edition” and “Dr. Phil.”

In an apparent deal with Haglin, Linn County prosecutors have agreed to have her guilt or innocence determined not during a public trial, but through a “stipulated trial” in which a judge will review the prosecution’s written “minutes of testimony,” a document that summarizes the state’s evidence, and then issue a verdict.

It’s easy to see why Haglin and the prosecutors might prefer a stipulated trial. It enables Haglin to preserve certain avenues of appeal because there is no guilty plea, and the prosecution can avoid the time and expense of a public trial.

Here’s the problem: In Iowa, the minutes of testimony — i.e., the evidence that’s to be weighed by the judge — is, by state law, a confidential document that’s accessible only to the prosecution, the defense and the judge.

Historically, that has created issues in Iowa counties where prosecutors deliberately place the most basic, elemental facts of what transpired — the who, what, when, where and how of a crime — only in the sealed minutes of testimony. It’s a tactic that makes it impossible for the press and the public to see why a person has been charged with a crime or whether a prosecutor’s decision to pursue a plea bargain is actually justified.

But hiding basic information in a sealed document becomes a much larger problem when confidential records are used not only by the prosecution to justify a criminal charge, but by a judge to determine guilt.

And that’s what happens when a “stipulated trial” takes place. Despite the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of open criminal trials — a right that belongs to the public and the press, and which cannot be waived by a defendant — a stipulated trial in Iowa involves the private consideration of evidence that is sealed not just from the press, but from the public, which is a group that includes crime victims.

No, it’s not as if the courtroom doors are being locked. It’s worse than that: There is no courtroom trial at all. A stipulated trial might involve a judge reading the minutes of testimony in his or her pajamas at home, if not in chambers, even as the evidence that’s being considered remains sealed from public view.

In 1948, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black articulated the importance of open criminal trials when he argued they provide a public demonstration of fairness; they curb misconduct on the part of judges and attorneys; they lessen the likelihood of perjury by witnesses; and they discourage decisions based on bias or prejudice.

Open criminal trials have “always been recognized as a safeguard against any attempt to employ our courts as instruments of persecution,” Black wrote. “The knowledge that every criminal trial is subject to contemporaneous review in the forum of public opinion is an effective restraint on possible abuse of judicial power.”

In the Haglin case, Sixth Judicial District Judge Kevin McKeever has given the Cedar Rapids Gazette a general description of what is contained in the minutes of testimony: a Child Protection Center interview with the victim, and Haglin’s interview with police. McKeever said he intends to issue his ruling in the case soon and will announce the verdict, which will include his factual findings, in open court.

McKeever told the Des Moines Register a judge can consider more than just the confidential minutes of testimony in a stipulated trial, but he acknowledged that this other evidence might also be kept secret.

Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden says he’s not sure anyone other than a defendant has a constitutional right to argue that a criminal trial be open. “I think the right to open trials is a right afforded to the defendant,” he said. “It’s a personal right, a constitutional right of the defendant, who can then waive that right.”

McKeever at least recognizes the public’s First Amendment right to open court proceedings, but says his primary concern is with the rights of the defendant. In that regard, both the prosecutor and the judge seem to have little regard for the value of public oversight and accountability.

“We really need to protect everyone’s constitutional rights, but not at the expense of the defendant’s rights,” McKeever says. “Let’s face it, after the reporters go home, after the public goes home, if the defendant is convicted, they are the ones who have to possibly face the consequences, not the public and not the press. I really don’t think it’s appropriate for others to interfere.”

The trouble is, no one’s access to a fair trial can be assured in a court system that confuses oversight with interference. A system that allows for private criminal “trials,” with the evidence sealed from public view, is a system in need of reform.

Denison hospital again hides info from public

This item appeared in the Des Moines Sunday Register’s “Roses and Thistles” column on Dec. 18, 2016.

A thistle to the Crawford County Memorial Hospital for once again concealing information from the community it claims to serve. A year ago, this allegedly “public” hospital refused to disclose the names of the people who were being used to drive patient-transport vehicles. After 13 months of stonewalling, the hospital was forced to give up the names when the Iowa Public Information Board ruled they had to be disclosed. Now the hospital refuses to reveal the size and nature of the settlement paid out to the family of a woman who died after a botched colonoscopy. Under Iowa law, such settlements are clearly a public record. But the hospital claims that because details of the settlement in civil court also found their way into the woman’s separate probate court file, which is sealed, the hospital must now keep its copy of the settlement secret. It’s a ludicrous argument since the sealed court file includes all sorts of information — names, addresses, property records, etc. — that is publicly accessible in other government files.

ISU claims list of Leath passengers is secret

By Jason Clayworth
Des Moines Register

That includes professional bow hunter John Dudley, who accompanied ISU President Steven Leath on at least four donor-funded trips. One plane ride on Feb. 27, 2015, with his wife Sharon Dudley, for example, cost $4,108, an unredacted copy of the records obtained by The Des Moines Register shows.

“There are already enough questions raised by the public about how the president is using the Iowa State aircraft, and stamping as secret the names of people who fly with him does nothing to instill confidence in the judgment he’s displaying,” said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council and the Register’s former opinion page editor.

The Register on Wednesday filed a complaint against the university and its foundation before the Iowa Public Information Board. The paper argues the redactions are illegal, saying the information is not a donor record and additionally do not identify passengers as donors or potential donors.

The passenger list before September was previously unredacted and available on the university’s website. The Associated Press in September used some of the records to help inform the public about questionable trips and costs associated with damage to a state-owned airplane piloted by Leath.

But those records were removed shortly after an Associated Press report about Leath’s plane mishap.

Leath claimed the unredacted records enabled AP reporter Ryan Foley to identify with whom he was meeting. Leath claims that the reporter asked “totally inappropriate” questions, including about donations raised as a result of the meetings. (Foley told the Register that he had only spoken with one donor before the record removals and had asked about the purpose of the trips and not donations.)

In October, the university reposted the records using a different format and blocking names of dozens of passengers.

Other notable redactions include Dean and Lori Hunziker, whose family owns property involved in a nearly $2.2 million proposed land deal before the Iowa Board of Regents. The Register’s copies of unredacted flight records show Dean and Lori Hunziker flew to Sulphur Springs, Texas, and Kansas City, Missouri, on multiple occasions in 2015 with Leath.

ISU Public Records Officer Sheryl Rippke responded Wednesday to a Nov. 7 request by the Register for unredacted copies of the records. She said information that has been redacted is only on records that identify donors or donor information.

“Accordingly, the redacted information is not subject to disclosure,” Rippke said.

The Register downloaded copies of some of the unredacted records before they were pulled from the school’s website and was able to compare the documents. The newspaper provided examples to the Iowa Public Information board, arguing that neither version names passengers as donors.

Evans said the redactions make it impossible for taxpayers to hold government officials accountable.

“Look at the trip into New York City where they stopped to refuel and picked up the president’s brother and partner,” Evans said. “By their logic, they would never have to disclose the passenger was his brother. They could use the Iowa State aircraft and make a big circle around the United States and pick up all the president’s kids by the same logic because they are potential donors to Iowa State University.”