Troubling advice on public records

The Gazette Editorial Board
Published: July 2 2014 | 12:01 am in Staff Editorial,

Democrats on the Iowa Senate’s Oversight Committee still are digging into the details of settlements paid by state agencies to dismissed employees, including some that contained extra money in exchange for keeping the deals quiet.

Who knew about this so-called “hush money,” and when did they know it? The path to answers led last week to Thomas “Ryan” Lamb, former legal counsel for the Department of Administrative Services, or DAS. It was Lamb who negotiated those settlements for the department.

Most of the headlines from Lamb’s testimony have focused on his assertion that, after the settlements story broke, he warned top Branstad officials about email evidence of hush money, even as top officials still were insisting that no such money was paid.

But Lamb also testified that Branstad’s legal counsel, Brenna Findley, advised him to not use email or other written communication to discuss controversial issues. That written communication would create a public record. Instead, Lamb was told to share information face to face.

For example, after the settlements issue was first reported in the Des Moines Register, Lamb met with Branstad’s chief of staff at a Dunkin’ Donuts to talk about the issue.

Asked Monday if she advised skirting open records law, Findley dodged.

“I provided advice to help protect confidential information that we are required to keep confidential under Iowa law,” she said.

Scandal or no scandal, the idea of the governor’s top lawyer advocating a course of action that keeps the public from having access to a record of important decisions and discussions strikes us as beyond troubling. It’s true some records can, lawfully, be kept confidential. But Lamb’s testimony suggests Findley’s advice went beyond those legal limits.

We know this isn’t exactly new. We know that government officials here and elsewhere have tried to come up with all sorts of ways for leaving behind no electronic paper trails. They’ve used personal email accounts, personal texts, meetings over doughnuts, etc. So in a way, attempting to hide public business from the public is business as usual.

But we expected more from an administration that’s said, repeatedly, that it is committed to maximum transparency. And in many ways, Branstad has lived up to that promise. In this instance, the governor’s office seems to have forgotten its promises. And it was Findley who ran for attorney general in 2010, vowing to do more to enforce open records and meetings law.

The purpose of those laws is to allow Iowans to see how important decisions are made. They may not like what they see, but they have a right to see it.

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