(AV17523) The Freedom to Know: Freedom of Information and Open Government in the 21st Century


my name is a time bars I’m a community
news reporter with the Des Moines Register and we have a panel of
journalists here we’re going to talk about what it’s like working with Iowa’s
open meeting and open records law as well as FOIA Information Act we have a
parademon over here and we have Loras olson founder creator of aims 365 and
then we also have Lee root the projects and investigative investigations with
the Des Moines Register Clark Kaufman also investigative reporter with the Des
Moines Register was supposed to be on a panel today but unfortunately was not
able to make it he had a more pressing commitment come up he’s actually in
Seattle receiving an award right now from the journalism 2009 conference and
he’s being recognized for his beat reporter of the year for his stories and
covering abuses and nursing homes across the state exposing unlicensed providers
at state-run home elissa and detailing lacks enforcement
of patient privacy laws as well as the disturbing death of a patient in a
nursing home anyway today again panelists hope to talk about
the obstacles and frustrations and some of the emerging trends among state
federal and local government agencies to hinder access to information and
hopefully share some insight and advice on how working journalists can persevere
against those who kind of stymie the media at times when we’re working to
expose important issues I’m let the public know about what’s going on first
off I’m gonna let Lee Ruud start off with kind of just a general explanation
of the state’s Open Meetings well a lot of you are here for class purposes I’m
assuming but this matters more and more to you as citizens as there are fewer
and fewer working journalists more people are going to have to know how to
use these laws we call them sunshine laws so that you can get information
from government agencies to kind of get to the bottom of things
sorry you came here so both the state and federal government
have sunshine laws and Iowa czars have been on the books for I think 25 the
most recent version we use these every single day almost in the in the register
newsroom to write letters to state and local agencies to try to find out more
about the issues that we’re covering we could not do investigative journalism
certainly which is our most important function without them there you know
chapters 21 and 22 of the Iowa Code if you ever want to take a peek but
basically what they do is they presume that all gov all information all
documents all records created by government agencies are open unless
there’s some specific provision in the law that allows somehow confidential and
by confidential and by confidential I mean you know maybe your personal you
know health records or certain personnel files things like that
you mentioned Clark Clark is probably our top expert at the newspaper in terms
of using these laws he’s relies on them for almost every major investigation
that he does but speaking of Perry and I also use them quite frequently and
they’re just an enormous help because one of the things that we want to talk
to you about today is how much more difficult it is to kind of get the truth
out of government agencies both at the state and federal level it’s
just more difficult and the one thing that I would I would add to that is as a
community news reporter I deal with the local school district in the Des Moines
area and two suburbs and they really take their cues from the state agencies
and so if they see that state agencies are but many times topics are discussed
in closed session that are not protected by closed session and I understand that
school boards are not required to take minutes and I’m just I find that very
curious they are required to make tape recordings of those sessions so you
should be able to group the requests and if this I believe however Li that
you were it requires a judge to get that tape opened up if you will yeah cuz this
is an important point though because if they go in closed session they’re
required to tape it and the reason is is to protect your rights if you for that
reason then the judge takes it in camera in private and decides what should be
over if and this could be part of your case if you sue and say it was an
illegal meeting and it’s one of the reason one of the ways that you can go
after the individual board members because they’re on the hook for what
does it leave five hundred define that’s like five hundred dollars they can be
fined $500 for voting in favor of closing the meeting if it was closed
illegally but that tape has to be there if they haven’t done the taped and
that’s just one more reason they’re going to be in trouble – actually you
can make it the other thing is a lot of times one of the reasons that they most
go into closed session is to talk about somebody’s performance or a personnel
issue that person has to request if that person wants it open they can’t close
that session so I believe there’s one exception and I
came across this deal even with an issue with our local school board that there
seems to be some part of the law in a separate part from 22 or 21 that has to
do with if it’s an employee of a school district okay that that by itself it has
to be a closed I ran into that that’s what I was told by the school district
in a particular situation well just to expand on Tom’s point a little bit
though because some of many of you are not journalism major so you might not
have had the fine and Doctrine ation that some of us got at this school and
others not this matter the law the Iowa law actually I I still don’t think it
requires a closed session in any case or maybe there may be a couple I don’t know
it changes law all the time but generally what you have is the
presumption that it’s all open and then you have this laundry list of exceptions
that they can use if they want but usually if a City Councilmember school
board member says you know we’re required to have a closed session that’s
not true and anybody here who’s working for the daily thinking about working for
the daily should know that or for school other school papers you know and and it
does get a little touchy or if the there used to be part of the law maybe still
is it that and Loras may have been talking about this where a job candidate
had to require a score a closed session before was closed well then the search
committee would just tell them the automatically it’s a sign this because
we’re gonna need it but the law also said and I think it’s still there Lee
isn’t it that that you can only close these meetings if it would cause
needless and irreparable harm to the person’s reputation now what we used to
do in the old days when we were really pushing some of these and a little more
in-your-face way as we would write stories saying that you know with leads
like this you know Stan Smith decided that something in his past would cause
him needless and irreparable harm you know that’s so great that he wanted this
closed meeting and he’s oh no I didn’t mean yeah that’s not what I meant at all
well that’s what the law says oh it you know technically that’s what you just
said you know probably the biggest example of
this is when they were looking for a new U of I president this came up and it was
a big controversy and you know I think a key is that anybody who’s going to do
reporting needs to have a copy of the little Open Meetings Open Records
pamphlet that they hand out you can get it from the Freedom of Information
Council and I’m sure you can get it here at school you know we keep these on our
down bullets got them he’s waving his hands yeah and we keep them on our desks
and you know use them just just constantly this today as a matter of
fact the legislature is debating whether to revise the open meetings and open
records laws there’s been a group that’s working been working for about two years
to fix holes in those laws but what’s interesting is they’re actually many of
the last-minute changes that are coming from the legislature would make this
state a lot less open not more open it’s kind of ironic
so it’s like all these last-minute amendments that have been kind of
offered to this legislation that was supposed to help us with scandals like
you know CTEK I’m sure a lot of you have heard about the you know the salary
scandal that happened with that central Iowa job training agency the flap over
the U of I presidential search things like this where lots of things have been
kept from the public very important things so we’re all kind of you know
crossing our fingers that that doesn’t get balled up in the very last days of
the legislative session I actually went down and testified
during those legislative hearings for this I was one of two who were not
affiliated with either there I would newspaper associations or the Iowa
League of Cities or the Iowa County Association there was a woman who
testified from Riverside Iowa where they’d had a terrible battle and then
Riverdale thank you and then I went down and I testified about some situation
that we had experienced with the Ames School District and it was an
interesting experience because we were given a very little bit of time to
testify where other entities were given much larger blocks of time to speak I
think the Iowa Newspaper Association the Iowa Broadcasters Association did a
great job though of presenting a unified front about why we needed this office of
basically an independent person or an independent group a committee that could
look at some of the problems that are going on between local communities and
between the citizens and I hope we get into some being able to talk about those
examples I brought one and one of the big things that I mean try to put this
into practice to try to help you understand so say you know there’s a lot
of stuff happening right now going on between the governor’s office and our
top legislators that have to do with everything from sex offenders to your
taxes to you know what to do about this bill or that bill normally what we do
and what we have done in the past is we’ll write a letter and say you know to
find out more because there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes talk that goes on
write a letter and say you know dear governor under Iowa’s open records law
we would like to see all the emails in the past you know two weeks on this
particular matter that have come between your office or people in your office and
say the legislative leaders because there’s no other way that we can find
out you know these little quiet conversations that they’re having
well now what they’re doing is they’re trying they come back and they write us
back and they say okay we’ll give you those what we but first we have to have
our lawyers review the information and we’re going to charge you for that and
oh by the way it’ll cost two thousand seven hundred and sixty dollars
and what the governor’s office has initiated is now trickling through all
of state government so they’re trying to chart even though this isn’t permitted
under state law it’s not expressly written in state law they’re charging us
for the cost of their government paid lawyers to look through information to
make it confidential and that’s not that’s not the way in which our law is
written they were written under the presumption that all information would
be open so of course we can test this we’re not getting very far but we’re
contesting it another thing that they’re doing is knowing that we are seeking information
or have been seeking information from government emails they all get their
private email accounts and then you know the governor will talk to somebody who’s
a head of a state agency using his own private email account well we don’t know
how many he has but under state law that information should be public and these
are the kind of battles that we’re fighting almost weekly now at the
register and the thing is it’s happening so much that there’s no even if we
wanted to go to court there’s just no way we could litigate you know all this
stuff and the message that the governor is sending which is backed up by the
attorney general’s office is trickling all through government in Iowa Mike just
mentioned that you know there’s and then so you so you have you have to think
about kind of what the landscape is – so Obama takes office and almost
immediately puts out a statement that basically says we’re going to be so open
that he set himself up so if he wants to like keep some sort of documents secret
and the AG has to the Attorney General has to prove that I think one other
person but the real test is going to be now what happens in the agencies because
you know things don’t change in Washington very very quickly sometimes
and so the agencies I think are you know the jury’s still out on whether they’re
going to become more open and just so you know that this is sort of an
international phenomenon just this week friend of mine who reports in another
state environmental news was requested a interview it’s not always just documents
with this openness thing this person wanted to to interview the
head of communications for Environment Canada which is environments version of
the EPA so this is the federal government and was told that the the
head of communications was too busy to talk to his report the request was to
discuss a change in communications policies so just wrap your mind around
this the guy who’s in charge of talking to the media refused to talk to the
media because it was too busy and the question was just about you’ve changed
your policies on dealing with the media you know and we’d like to know what have
more information they sent a couple of emails and I was about it but the state
situation just to piggyback on leads comments a little bit I mean for me this
current situation with the state government is is a is a tougher
situation than we’ve had since the early 80s
I mean we haven’t had very many governors in Iowa but we’ve had a few
counties for years as administration we’ve had we’ve definitely had a number
of terms and it just keeps getting tougher this business about you know and
again I don’t know if you I assumed you understood what Lee was saying there but
just to reiterate it they’re asking us to pay their lawyer who’s going to get
paid anyway who’s on the staff has to do something with this day to find a reason
not to give us documents when the law says that the documents are open on
their face unless they can cite an exemption and their their thought is
that well someone might be upset if we let these go there might be someone’s
name there might be this or that or anything and it’s there’s a sort of
arbitrary you know I forget what they’re charging us by the minute or something
but I made a request for a bunch of emails that was going to be they said
they were gonna charge 20 I think it was $25,000 to review these records before
they gave them to because there were so many emails we then scaled back the
request made it a little narrower they came back and said oh actually we
miscalculated now it’s gonna be 50 you know and again we object to any of this
because you know it’s it’s just not set up that way they they are not allowed to
try the law allows them to charge us
basically for paper or a disk and and possibly you could make a case for some
computer time and we actually have paid in some cases several hundred dollars
here and there for their computer time which is probably also questionable but
if we make a if we ask them to do a certain sort that’s probably a reason
well it’s not reasonable for their lawyers to think we’re going to fund
their office so they can tell us why they’re not gonna tell us anything this
would be put kind of morning local government terms but it goes through all
levels is that we pay salaries to public employees and part of their job
descriptions are to deal with records so now we’re being asked to pay them again
when we get paid charge like there are locally our school district Ames is the
only one that charges fees and they didn’t charge fees until we got into a
very long-term situation with fights over open records or whatever all of a
sudden they slapped fees on all of us a retrieval fee and so now I’m supposed to
pay a government employee who’s already receiving a paycheck to store records to
now go find the records they’re being paid to store how many of you think they
I mean you could charge your boss for doing your job I mean what we do but
we’d like to charge twice I don’t that’s that’s my question not as much to hinder you getting them
but you set a precedent because if let’s say I might call that a democracy okay I
mean the truth is we don’t you know we’ve heard government officials stand
up before the legislature and say oh if we don’t do this they’re gonna go crazy
they’re gonna and they have they’ve asked for thousands of documents and
we’ve you know but we’ve gone back and proved that the number of requests that
we make has not really changed over the last several years
usually when we ask we do start out large sometimes if something’s really
important we’ll ask for a lot we always sit down with them and say we’ll scale
this back if you can help us get to the heart of what we really want to know and
in the event in the cases where we have made exceptionally large requests they
have never fulfilled them anyway so you know this is your rights as citizens
we’re talking about the very heart of a democracy this sounds kind of dull
because it’s a couple state laws one federal law and it’s all about kind of
this you know just documents and stuff but if you don’t have this you don’t
have a democracy anymore you don’t we have we have a good example here we have
gentleman here who’s who’s trying to get records from name school board
sounds like Loras has had a bit of a history with with the local governments
here too you know not nothing we’re asking for I mean we have no special
privileges journalists these laws were written for the public who are using
them we happen to you know this is part of our job to use them but lawyers and
tax payers and interest groups use this machinery all the time sometimes better
than we do to do their reports and there point I think lawyers use these laws
morons probably more than anybody more than anybody actually no citizens make
the most complaints to the Ombudsman’s office yeah it’s just regular citizens
trying to find out whether or not their local school board broke the law you
know we’re talking about how democracy can you give us some examples of some of
the records that you’ve requested that you’re having trouble getting I mean
some of the issues you’re looking into and how that well actually I want to
make it very clear that most of the problems that we experienced with the
Ames school board have been fixed I mean it’s it’s an entirely different
environment in a lot of ways here but here’s an example this this was a very
complicated issue with construction contracts and the district had outside
counsel and I asked for the billing invoices for just to see how much the
attorneys were being paid I happened to make the request a day after a private
citizen made the same request so when I called the chief financial officer he’d
already talked to the attorneys by the way the same attorneys whose bills I was
requesting and the citizen was told no I get a no also because of the problems
we’ve had that we don’t want to all go into but I had a deal with our County
attorney who said the next time I got turned down he would I was to call him
and he would send it a police officer with me to the district school office I
know this is funny but this is how bad it was and that he would watch me get
denied and would then file the charges so I get this no and I get on the phone
to the county attorney and the county attorney calls the police department and
I get a call back from a detective and we set a time to go pick up the records
the next day and I call the chief financial officer back and ask if that’s
convenient for him and that’s one thing when you’re working really I think in
all levels you need to be a little considerate the losses they should be
able to produce most of this right away well they’re human beings and they have
jobs okay so all of a sudden he’s uh can I call
you back in 20 minutes and in 20 minutes I got a call back that
those wreck when would I like to come pick up those records they had gone from
an excuse and they didn’t even give me an excuse the law says you have to get
an excuse in writing when you’re denied they told I found out later the citizen
the day before is he couldn’t have the records because there might have been
some confidential client/attorney privilege on there these are billing
invoices if that attorney’s office was not smart enough to prepare their
invoices to not have confidential information on that stuff
I mean million bills are a real basic you can always see the bills
okay track the money follow the money so in so it was a very interesting
situation the officer and I did not have to go but it took me literally having to
cut a deal with the county attorney and that deal with the county attorney only
came after months of a small citizens group of which bill was one mark was
another okay a small citizens group hammering and hammering on a district or
the county attorney when I started this process this happened to me two years
after I’d started doing the investigation and at that time was the
section editor for the the Des Moines Register’s Ames life at times I had
money behind me and the Attorney General at state and the problems with having
the county attorney or the Attorney General there’s no agency that directly
oversees this and you have to file charges you have to take it upon
yourself as a news organization or as an individual citizen to get an attorney or
you have to convince your law enforcement attorneys to file the
charges and that year that this was happening happened to be an election
year in our County well via I mean part of
what you’re probably getting at is the Attorney General basically has a
conflict of interest here I mean that office represents the state agencies but
we’re asking them to enforce this law which leads done a great job of writing
this law is not being enforced in Iowa you know that this this law has some
teeth to it we’re hoping to get more now we’re you know fighting to keep you know
you know you always have to be careful what you ask for and and this is an
example we knew there was a risk opening up the debate on that law because the
exemptions keep getting longer but just go back to this question here about that
let me give you a couple examples of records we’ve tried to get and others
have tried to get in one of them is a federal situation
Katrina was how many years ago a few years ago and that the day after Katrina
hit a reporter for The Times Picayune in New Orleans asked for the federal
government for records about the everybody who had a release of petroleum
or anything else had immediately report that so that so he was trying to get an
immediate report out so people are coming back would know whether it’s safe
to go back their neighborhoods long story short he’s never he’s never
received anything except a call which we get sometimes you know everything some
of these agencies will call you every year and say oh yeah you know you’ve got
this request do you still want us to consider that it’s like yeah we want you
to consider and we wanted the documents eight months ago you know one of the
things I got tonight on was a you know was a fairly broad request I made four
emails sent to and sent by and received by the Iowa Department administrator at
Iowa Department natural resources part of the reason I wanted those was he was
approaching one year in office and there had been you know it’s a controversial
job there had been a lot of issues and I couldn’t really frankly think of a way
of getting to some of the information that I was after without fighting
basically everything he had they objected I then you know went for a
certain I thought well you know probably if this was an ongoing
issue sometime like a three month window or something he probably would have some
traffic we cut it down they still want to charge us fifty
thousand dollars and I got zip now the flip side of that is that I often ask
DNR and sometimes other agencies for databases without really filing a formal
FOIA request or you know at least you know it’s filing it kind of an informal
and I want these you know again if there’s a paper record there and and
we’ll get them so it’s not it’s not universal
Clark Kaufman who we’ve talked about I think is still you know I think he has a
six year old request for documents from the federal government having to do with
oversight of hospitals and possibly nursing homes I can’t remember because
he’s done a lot of covers on both he got it I think it took three years for them
to call him and say well you know you’ve made this request back in you know fifty
three we’re wondering if you still want us to look at this yeah you know and and
yeah a couple more examples kind of back to you know last summer’s flooding and
as everybody knows FEMA’s track record and spending money and dealing with
disasters kind of sketchy so one of the things that we did in the height of that
is to file open records requests we wanted to know how money spent in Iowa
how aid was given out how priorities were said he asked for some emails some
documents I filed that request it was now I think six months ago last month
and I call you know every couple weeks and say anything and I can’t sometimes
even get someone to pick up the phone last month
I wrote nasty letter in the wake of Obama’s day
one you know thing that we’re gonna be more open in federal government and said
okay well if this is the case with somebody please get back to me I do not
consider it I don’t think you’re trying to be accountable when you know I can’t
even get somebody on the phone you had somebody who was going to call me back
and promised I had something forthcoming I got nothing yada yada yada and I see
seed senator Harkin and Senator Grassley and the Attorney General all of a sudden
boom I got a phone call from the head of that division saying oh we’ve got your
request we do have 850 requests that we’re processing right now but we’ll
we’ll try to get you something in the next two weeks so I was like you know
cool that worked which is something that we do quite often at the register on the
state level as well if we’re just getting know where we’ll start you know what they can do you know one one of the
number one things that we do at the Des Moines Register which is why the paper
still has a very you know one of the best track records really in the country
on these issues is we write about it we write about it especially when it
matters we can’t write about it every single time but if you’re gonna deny us
records you’re gonna have to deal sooner or later with an article in the paper
that says you know they’re they’re not letting you see you know who’s who are
the finalists for the president’s job or they’re not letting you see we need to
point it out to people to to show them and and often that works if that fails
often and we kind of take different routes but what I do is I become a
squeaky wheel and I make a formal complaint to the Ombudsman’s office
myself as a journalist saying you know I know that this
is open and I also asked the Attorney General to go on record I called his
office and I say I need to know publicly whether or not you believe that this is
in open record and usually a lot of times you can get something handled
right away that day or that week and and we don’t we don’t have the money anymore
and we never did really to file lawsuits but that’s kind of our thing that we do
is last resort but only when we’re sure that we have a really strong case
because we have to be you know our colleague bill Petroski who’s another
we’ll call this to build Petrosky doctrine if it has to do with the state
government you know bill at least used to do this probably still does if some
poor agency had started causing him trouble when release things he would
bill would you know he’d play the game for a while and then he would call the
governor’s office because of course the governor’s the head of the executive
branch you know this all makes sense and he would tell the governor’s
spokesperson that he had been denied these records and then he was holding
the governor personally responsible for this matter and usually in about five
minutes you know he would have them because of course the story’s gonna say
you know the culver administration denied this not that this agency had had
it some cases that might have been a stretch but under this administration
we’re holding them responsible for for what’s going on policy wise throughout
state government right now are you guys finding that you’re having
to back away at all or shy away from filing losses that normally would have
been filed in better times I think only the editors of the paper okay but I
think we’re getting very good at crafting our letters and we need to be
we know that we need to be where we we don’t we don’t have time and it does us
no good to go on fishing expeditions when we’re doing these we’re really
looking for something specific and we’re not trying to you know waste people’s
time we’re not trying to just be armory we are trying to get to the bottom of
something that it obviously is very important to our readers to the people
of the state if and we make judgments every day about how far we’re gonna do
to push the envelope if it’s something small really you know it’s just a but if
it’s a you know if it’s a small town and it’s egregious like you know in
Riverdale those people had to spend more than 10 grand and their own money just
to find out what was going on in their local government that to me was absurd I
wrote about it there are other things though you know one thing you might want
to tell them about is the FOIA audit because there that didn’t I mean that
cost us staff salaries papers all around but it didn’t
we’d have to file a lawsuit oh that’s another thing that we do every every
once in a while the papers in all across Iowa get together and we do what we call
a Freedom of Information on it and we’ll send reporters out to seek kind of
on-the-spot information that should be public any day of the week so one year
we went in and we went and asked as part of that Sheriff’s all around the state
to see their gun permit applications I which is something that gun permits
little dicey little controversial but controversial isn’t a reason for closing
records it’s public under Iowa law and that’s what you saw supervisors travel
records I believe were in there somewhere yeah we had a number of things
but the sheriffs in particular were really funny because they in one
instance with one reporter they tailed him kicked him out of town and tailed
him as he was driving I had a sheriff in Dallas County threatened me yell at me
sit me down do a background check when I asked him what he found on the
background check which by the way is public
he said that’s none of your business I’m not going to tell you so I mean it’s
it’s it’s it’s it’s not there are people all across government who do the right
thing we should say that there are people who give up tons of information
for free but then there are people who just want to be obstructionist and the
reasons are pretty clear to us I mean when it’s controversial when they don’t
want to you know if there’s any way that they can get around not releasing stuff
they will I wanted to mention one other case because sometimes and I’m sorry I’m
talking quite a while I just want to mention one more case sometimes this
stuff can be even life or death I’m writing in the past year about a guy by
the name of david Flores he was convicted in one of the most
high-profile murders that we ever had in Des Moines it was a gang shooting in the
last year or two there’s been some new evidence suggesting that david Flores
might be innocent and that actually another man was responsible for killing
this woman fill in to Phyllis Davis I have gone to the Des Moines police
department a number of times oh and and the Des Moines police department
acknowledged that they did a key piece of evidence that he should
have had for his trial back in 1996 it was an FBI report that pointed to this
other suspect way back then since then david Flores who’s serving
life in prison has exhausted all of his Appeals
he’s now his case is now post conviction cases is pending before a judge but the
Des Moines police department has denied me access to related to that murder
related to the other suspect related to you know there are three or four cases
that we’re all tied together so I wanted to look at all the records and the
reason that they’re saying is that the case is still open and that the case of
the other suspect is still open this has happened in 1996 what reason
would there be at this point they obviously don’t have any leads in these
cases so I mean and it’s life or death because this guy can spend you know and
if he’s guilty is guilty fine he can spend the rest of his life in the can
but if he’s not then there’s still someone out there who was responsible
for this killing um if I could Lee gave a good suggestion about the writing
about it that’s the number one the power of the press or the power of the
internet now that I’ve left kind of the print world um the issue becomes I hope
all of you go to work for the Des Moines Register right out of school but it’s
probably not gonna be and you’re gonna go to work for smaller smaller
newspapers or small magazines or whatever okay if there any other and
what’s gonna happen is you’re gonna find out first of all that if you write about
it and especially if you’re an independent is immediately there the
other side is going to charge you with being with not being balanced or fair
about it because because there’s not that whole layer of editors and
everything to make that request from so you’re gonna fight that right off the
bat squeaky wheel I want to come back to the gentleman asked earlier you know a
little bit something about what happens in the situation that we had ongoing
with our school district we had a school board member threatened to sue a citizen
who continued to ask for information for harass
we had a school board member file an actual police report for harassment
against a citizen squeaky wheel after a while yes because I had my background at
the register even so after I went independent I had a small audience but I
had the right audience to read my copy so that kept me valid if you don’t have
that credibility going in and you’re small or you’re small-town paper owner
is fighting with the Superintendent of Schools or whatever it is okay you
become much more difficult I can’t tell you about the power that comes with
working for the Des Moines Register or the Cedar Rapids Gazette or some paper
like that okay the other thing I’d like to just address is the money even when I
was dealing with this and worked for the register there was a limited amount of
money that the register was willing to put behind me and they did great I got
subpoenaed and the attorneys came in and fought that you know we had a senior
management drive up and talked to the CFO you know honey we really tried but I
knew all along that we weren’t gonna sue I I knew what my budget was no it may
take the bloggers and others who are whatever form the media you know media
could turn into here somebody has to watch these people I mean we had this C
tech scandal in Des Moines and then let’s you know if you don’t know what
that is it’s basically miss spending of federal money on exorbitant salaries and
things of this store you can almost predict where these scandals gonna
happen because they haven’t happened that the agencies though we don’t watch
very much the Ames School Board the Des Moines school board Ames City Council
des Moines City Council legislature aren’t gonna get away with much because
you know and Iowans have this kind of tradition of you know you don’t have to
be you don’t have to be the you know the Illinois governor to get in trouble here
you know we don’t you know there’s a low tolerance for crap in Iowa
you know and somebody starts down that road of looking like they might have a
conflict of interest we usually out them and because people
don’t stand for that around here but if the newspapers go away and people stop
going to those meetings I guarantee we’re gonna see a lot more questionable
you know it’s I’m not saying that everybody’s bad out there and like the
officials all have a problem but the likelihood of things getting a little
sloppy yeah are high we had a situation speak of this you reminded me of a
situation where a citizen of West Des Moines who did not work for any media
outlet whatsoever went to the school board in West Des Moines and wanted to
tape the meetings for her own reference they told her she couldn’t do it
you know we wrote a story about it and you know she’s now you can bet she’s
taping them now it’s like that’s just a complete violation of basic freedoms you
know it’s just like you people have never even read this law you don’t have
lawyers what’s going on here that they pay for each year so they have attorney
of staff of attorneys they have enough money to spend but
nothing stopping you from writing an op-ed to the Ames Tribune or the
register politics maybe but well if it’s in a public meeting I think it would be
hard for them to make that case incidentally they okay okay well that’s
that’s bizarre the Iowa State just as an aside the Iowa
State foundation fight you know it’s close to home up here and that was
another one where we went to some considerable effort to and in and for
those of you who may be students here if you don’t know this case I’m sure my
buddies in the journalism Department will share it with you the Iowa State
Daily went after the the athletic council here because the athletic
council said that they were not a public body I think I think Brian and I were
probably on the staff of the daily at the time and we said oh yes you are
long story short went to court I think it went to the Supreme Court and they
said baloney you’re getting public money or public body and that was a huge case
in FOIA law and Iowans still is we it doesn’t just happen between the media
and government agencies we have a situation in storey County right now
where that same county attorney I was talking about earlier is refusing to
turn over some information to our story County Treasurer we literally had our
treasurer have to write a formal request for information and we have one of our
story county supervisors having filed a complaint with the Attorney General
about a violation of open meetings law with the other two supervisors and
they’re all of the same party that’s gonna say if there was a party split no
these are all the same party so it does happen
a few questions here yeah I just think it’s a cultural thing we talked about it
earlier I mean it’s it’s a matter of convenience for them you know it’s it’s
in their in their mind probably they’re thinking not much good can come out of
this being in the public view but by the way that’s not really true because if
I’m a politician and I’m trying to pass a policy you know actually it would be
much better for me to know upfront where the problems are or where the opposition
is and I mean in many ways that public discussion is gonna do them some favors
but I just think it’s a cultural it’s definitely it comes from your own
personal beliefs about openness and you know in a lot of cases with politicians
it’s because they think they can get more done they just work out a deal
behind the scenes come public you guys are all gonna like it right we’ll just
give our stamp of approval and off we go but like you know there’s a there’s a
sex offender law right now at the Iowa Legislature that I’ve been writing about
they’ve had every single meeting every single meeting they’ve had on this major
piece of legislation has been in secret so we’re now in the last like three days
of the legislature and you’re gonna get you’re gonna get a bill that’s gonna
cost a ton of money we don’t know whether you know we don’t know all the
details we don’t know the deals that have been struck to to to get this done
because it’s been a major rift between the Democrats and the Republicans all
this stuff has been in secret until you know yesterday our today’s paper was the
first time I wrote about some of the details
so you know another thing about that is that you know we should make the point
that those of you who we do have some journalism majors in here right so I’m
so on day one of the first journalism class they said something like this to
you right journalism is not a popularity contest a
problem that Lee and I have and and Tom have is we think we’re on the right side
of openness everybody agrees with us baloney a lot of general public thinks
we should shut up and stop hassling these poor mayors and you know these
these well-meaning public servants and they don’t seem to understand that
they’re you know that the Soviet Union model of openness didn’t work out that
well maybe face the whole fifth season the
wire off a problem with police not wanting to release shootings police
really achieve the names just due to backlash but he says that the reason the
deaths that the newspapers because the fat locally-owned anyway Virginia do you
believe that you have less backing because it’s not to me a corporate thing
it never has been I worked with some of the best journalists I’ve ever had that
I mean my dad was a Pulitzer winning journalist and I’ve been in that since
the day I was born I’ve been involved in this business it’s it’s the journalists
that you work with I work with some ones that believe that won a fight and other
ones that just don’t and Gannett doesn’t really have much to do with it
you know money money is tight certainly and more tight and that makes it
difficult it does but I mean we hadn’t I mean I just the register has just such a
fine group of watchdog hardcore you know First Amendment journalists and still
does I think Simon’s point is is that they’re just you were
in the chamber there are fewer reporters now there have been traditionally a good
newspapers like Baltimore salon oh yeah and then we had the Des Moines Register
and that’s that’s what 40cm so that makes your side or our side people we
have a wall we have two of the best foil lawyers two or three were working for us
and in you know coincidentally in the old days we had barb Mac who’s on the
journalism faculty here and I must say I actually go back that far with the
register and there was a certain joy and being able to call upstairs to tell barb
that some city council was giving me trouble I mean back then they had to
make the the city manager and say you have an open seat in the city manager
people are applying back then there was a case out of I think it was Dubuque
that made all those legal but people still thought you know you could call
barb and and barb would call you know Jim brick or whoever was on the other
side and say something like well look you’re wrong here and if you want us to
sue ya we will just let me know what you want us to do and you know I mean I had
her on the phone from a whole you know or right and I called her one night from
Ankeny city hall and they were just giving me all sorts of hell about this
very issue and she was on the phone to the city attorney that night trying to I
find got something at 11 o’clock and managed to get in the paper I still
think we have the the legal background Gannett just likes to hire local law
firms rather than having staff attorneys and I think that you know that’s true
that you know the the risk we have is maybe having fewer bodies to fight these
but Lee and Clark and I and and we’re bar a have a training for pretty much
everybody on the staff we’re really pushing this at the register big time in
some ways we’re better and then we ever have been I mean you’ll
see it spread through the whole newsroom that people will be aware where it used
to be maybe a few hard-headed folks its kind of abdomen flowed over the years we
still have hard-headed folks and there’s an impact there’s an assumption in that
statement that local newspapers or local news sources don’t get pressure from the
community to back off I’m going to come back to this situation because it was
three years in the making but I had at least two personal telephone bytes so if
you will with the editor of the IG’s Tribune about this because one of the
things the county attorney was saying to me was Lloris if the Tribune would come
on board if the Tribune would come on board and they weren’t even covering it
to the depth that I was and then and and the editor at that time who has some
really great qualities and whatever but he said you know what I just kind of nip
it away at nip away at it the problem with you guys as you want an answer now
and you want it right on the public right now and and so he I believe might
have gotten some pressure from you know the revenues local at the Tribune okay
and so you have to remember that I’ve also worked for the Juneau Empire which
is a very local paper even though it’s the state paper and I looked for the
work for several different publications in Washington that covered local
community and there is a real pressure I’ve never worked for a boss who told me
not to run something or cover something I’ve been really lucky but there is a
difference in that local that they don’t have here because there’s more of that I
mean you guys aren’t being told what to write about right no and I mean I think
a good point I mean if everything goes back to local I mean some people
consider local ownership maybe that would be an improvement on if it would
be or not I mean there’s some advantages it depends on the owners there but this
is a disadvantage which some of us have managed to escape most of our career and
you know thank God for that it’s not that we you know are unfair or anything
but we’re I don’t I don’t think that we have that we spend a lot of time
worrying about the advertisers right we just do our jobs and and if that line
can get word pretty heavily in a small market you know I
don’t think of aims as being that small of a market but I know it’s small enough
to for that kind of pressure to be there and it’s a lot of a lot of range
vehicles between the daily and everything so yeah the competition is
there there is a certain amount of education
that needs to go on but and and it needs to be constant kind of like what we do
in the news room I mean I think God we have people like Cathleen Richardson who
heads the you know Freedom of Information Council anion she runs
around and she educates state officials and the Attorney General’s Office they
put out sunshine bulletins and they do all these things that if you’re
interested in the topic you can certainly learn about it but we’re past
that point in Iowa we really be an enforcement you know I did a story a
couple years ago and and we you can only point to just a couple cases in the last
decade where they’ve actually County attorneys and by the way County
Attorney’s can get involved or the attorney general’s office when you talk
about formal action and in Iowa if you if you if you violate the laws twice you
can be ousted from office so but no that’s never happened no one’s you know
you can count on one hand the number of time that times that people crack down
and I don’t I just like to say it doesn’t do much good to send out these
sunshine bulletins if you’re not going to enforce the law and you know we’re
having problems getting the law enforced right now we just are and the among
yourselves name one case where the press the press released something and it
turned out to be a really bad deal I mean
what what story can you think of in history where something was released
because of an open records for what request and something really really bad
happening it doesn’t happen this is good this is good on every level but you know
people are getting shot down right there’s a certain code I think among
elected officials too because basically what we’re asking here is for an elected
state official to take a shot at one of one of his brothers and sisters either
in local government or state government and we haven’t mentioned that the
Congress congressional offices actually are exempt from FOIA you know which
causes some some problems but it’s you know it’s yeah I think we were warned a
good trip so my question is you’re saying it’s not
happening so well you know at some point we will go back again and we will look
at this year part of this law that they were trying to do to improve enforcement
of these laws they were going to establish a council that heard
complaints and took action it was going to be independent but because the budget
is so tight and what it is they’ve kind of backed away from that so now they’re
gonna have an advisory council maybe that will make some recommendations on
potential law changes and we’ll come back at it we’ll look at you know we’ll
look at complaints and we’ll see how they’re doing and see if there’s any
measurable change that I can tell you that thus far you think that newspapers in the
register does an adequate job of educating on forming the public as to
the impact that it has through you know the open records request that we make I
mean do you think that you know I understand what happens you know when we
make these requests you know do we say you know because of you know Des Moines
Register investigations because of requests we made you know here’s the
story about these mentally retarded men living well we try to every time I mean
we’re encouraged to every time we do something that there was an open records
request involved unless you’re not that we do mention it but I don’t think I
don’t think people and I don’t think people understand it and when Dave was
talking about the situation I mean I could it’s almost like in one way I can
think back that when WI was good I’m sorry not wasn’t the WI thing when when
the Pomerantz Board of Regents had the brilliant I did to kill the ISU
journalism department and folded in with Iowa practically every certainly every
paper in Iowa that was run by a graduate of Iowa stages flame through these guys
and and all of a sudden it was gone I could see doing that but I don’t think I
think people read that and it’s easy for the state officials to ignore it and the
rest of public life well of course openness is good and
that’s kind of the reaction but you know Lee had a blog going for a while on
these issues and I mean it’s like so like how do you get people to pay
attention I like when I read copy in the register that says from a Freedom of
Information request or due to that I would even say but this is is that if it
were those newspapers and news vehicles who could still afford to do this kind
of they would even put a side bar and that
would say how many hours of staff time went into this or you know just a couple
of paragraphs talking about what did we have to go through this was six months
in the making these were 250 requests or whatever not everybody will read it
you’re right it’s like a blog some people may see it and I really don’t
think that people understand what it takes to do investigative journalism
I think Clark Kaufman does a good job of pointing out a little bit of a
play-by-play of what he asked for and what he wasn’t given you know it’s my
favorite thing on FOIA is when you call a federal agency and they won’t tell you
who their FOIA officer is it’s like can you tell me the person I need to file
this so they said well you gave to the wrong the wrong person well who’s the
right person well I’m not authorized to say some of them have this on their
website now and I’m convinced the email goes to you know the someplace in
Siberia where what’s left of the cavalry out there is if you want to be in
communications if you want to be a writer of any sort going forward if you
want to cover sports you want to work for Esquire if you want to you know
whatever you yes bien know whatever you want to do this stuff
comes in so handy it makes you it’s what distinguishes you it’s what people want
to read it’s what you know there I hate to say it but good writers are a dime a
dozen what you have to have something unique to offer you have to have give
people something they haven’t read because we don’t have time nobody wants
to take time anymore to sit and look at the internet and you know so whatever
whatever you put out there it’s it’s got to make people go home and this is the
stuff that does it so we had a guy Jeff Zeleny he was from my alma mater
University of rascal Lincoln he was one of the first people in their journalism
department he actively used the state he learned how to use Nebraska’s Open
Records the ball when he was a college student that guys would be New York
Times now he covered Obama he writes just captivating stories he’s just
exceptional with open records it’s really not you know it catapulted his
career just not being aggressive and learning where to look and where to find
stuff so is it deadly don’t be afraid either because there are a lot of model
letters like I think investigative reporters and editors have on Society of
environmental journalists and the reporters Committee on the freedom of
the press they all have sort of boilerplate
letters you can kind of massage and and use it’s not like you have to become a
lawyer to do this you don’t ask EJ to find out about I
or any organizations that you recommend we have the FOIA council and bowl over
here hasn’t the nifty little booklets he was offering which is a great place of
start I really really love the reporters committee for freedom of the press
website it’s awesome because you can compare different states and their laws
and different battles that are going on there’s student press issues you know I
mean it’s just I think that’s there are a lot of different uses though
and Lee was talking about the power it gives you and you know you all are
probably you know more gifted in using some of these database tools and web
tools then I mean we’re learning this on their job and you’ve come come up with
it but it really helps now when things are
going to the web you know it’s like don’t just tell me the story let me
search for my County my address my community you know how much of this is
going on where I live and it’s you know the power of of having those records and
the and the database is pretty cool stories but we also use them for very
useful purposes where we create these databases where you can check to find
out how your you know municipal taxes ranked up to you know surrounding areas
surrounding counties or you can click to find out
the jobs or the projects that your city submitted for a job you know for work
for economic stimulus money you know is is my street and again gonna get
repaired and as that we did one last year that actually was based on research
done here at Iowa State by John downing over in the occult ecology department
but it hasn’t named this long and I can’t remember it anymore it’s been
changed over the years he had done five or six years worth of Studies on Iowa’s
main recreation lakes updating data really hadn’t been done since ninety and
then back to eighty or 70s or something like that basically you had a whole lot
of data to tell you if your local watering hole was any good or not and we
loaded this up on a nice little clickable map and database so that if
people wanted to check you know Hickory Grove over here east of Ames to see
whether it’s we’re swimming in they could they could do that and it was
really a nice way to combine all this we had to actually select certain
parameters because Downing’s work was quite comprehensive and I don’t I’m not
so sure that the general public wants the 30 or 60 different parameters but
they might what the the big ones so and then we did the bars
whenever I actually were doing one on a garage sale all right we’ve got some
database thing on how to find a garage sale it’s hard-hitting as a role model
the legislature exempts itself what everybody else does as far as open
records I just wrote another story about this I
kind of write one every couple years the legislature under Iowa’s Constitution
they have the right to set their own rules for themselves because there are
different branch of government and with that authority they decided that they
can have as many closed meetings if they want to and that they don’t have to give
you any public records regarding you know like their emails their phone
records and all that stuff so here they are
they’re taking off a lot of cities and counties when they’re tinker with the
sunshine laws this year when they’re don’t subjected themselves and again I
ask you what harm oh my gosh if we made everything if they were had to be as
public even half as public as cities and counties were where would the world come
you know come to an end I think we might wind up with fewer bills but maybe
better bills if things were aired in public every year know they’re doing
their main negotiations in what they call caucus which is private means with
their party but that should point out that the subcommittee meetings and the
committee meetings to lead up to the action on the floor they do discuss them
those are all those are all open but of course you know we all know the deal the
initial deals already done at that point are going to get cheap if there are me
if major surgery has to happen it will happen in private and that’s just the
way the tomorrow they’re gonna come out with the
bird next there do come out with all his budgets that’s they be the budget for
the next year yeah and no time for the public or media to look at it at all and
analyze well we need to I guess we do need to point out on that that you know
this is sort of like you know a City Council has what they call three
readings of an ordinance and a reason they have to pass at three times that so
people can have a chance to you know have a little democracy and have their
say one of the problems we ran into this year was on the budget we asked Culver
Culver’s office for the proposed cuts that each department had to submit and
again this was a really frustrating one this is this is so blatantly public it’s
not even funny and we never got it these were he asked every department to
say you know we need you to you know the companies do this all the times like if
you have to cut or maybe the journalism department if you have to cut have got
five ten fifteen fifty percent how would you do it so they all came up with these
reports we asked for him we thought people deserve to know what the
department has had to say and absolutely refused to give us a shred of that
information one of the things that they’re putting that legislation that
they’re talking about today is all of a sudden drafts draft documents would
suddenly be formally not public that was one of the last-minute amendments that
came into this and we were just like we have drafts now we get drafts from a lot
of places why the hell would we agree agreed to this and this whole thing is
going to be labeled better more open government in Iowa and it’s exactly the
reverse how can citizens make choices if the decisions have already been made
mark looking at it back from the local angle I’ve never had a local government
official or employee or anyone say I’m not going to give you something or I’m
not going to tell you this or we’re going to go into closed session on that
because the legislature doesn’t have to I mean it’s never happened so I don’t
know if there’s if really truly that is in this thought process I think it’s
back more to the previous explanation about it’s easier they don’t have to get
input occasionally they don’t know the law and stuff but I’ve never had anybody
say well the legislature doesn’t have to do it so I don’t have to do it well excuse me and also as well as is
part of a renewed Iowa professional chapter of the Society of Professional
Journalists this time last year it had zero numbers now has probably 150
members oh and I would say it’s a mix what do we
got Drake three Warburg okay anyway this
organization going it really kind of started last screen when we had the
region seven conference at the Iowa State Center and Dave Ekins who’s the
current manager the president along with last president of spj sort of got
together with these people and they wanted on each other and they
suddenly figured out a way to get this chapter going again I think it had been
a couple of decades they would not had a chapter in one of the best newspaper
states in the country and so it’s wonderful that they were going strong
again and I encourage you out-of-state
students to join the Leo Mars chapter while you’re here and when you get out
there in the real world a job that you will join the professional organization
and they meet all the time email invites all the time the next one
is going on tonight there’s one well yeah everyone and find we’re having a
social from 4:30 to 6:00 at Legends we have a room reserved
so social between the iesous chapter and the professional chapter and so this is
a great opportunity for you to reach out to other professionals share ideas like
this network and also just have some good fun that we’re getting ready to go
to the regionals in st. Louis in a couple of weeks I don’t know if the
professional chapter is going we’re taking seven down it’s kind of times are
kind of tough right now but we’re taking seven down from Iowa State mainly
because of the generosity of dr. machete so this is a great organization and one
of the best things about that you are in it in the college level the first three
years at the professional level and you continue to have the same great who’s
about half so that’s another and the ultimately spj is another line
of defense legal like they will provide labeled legal information and challenge
so Tom thanks a lot you know I ran into some problems with the ISU foundation
and I react to problems with the administration in terms of getting
records and access to meetings and the staff at the Des Moines Register was
always available and always really helpful as a resource particularly the
Clarks often you know you could always call them up on the phone send me an
email say hey this request I’m having some trouble what advice do you have for
me you know how have you dealt with this situation before and I know Lee and
Perry you know are more than long to help people out and they’ve actually
helped to helped me out on occasions in the register newsroom dealing with city
officials so if you ever find yourself stuck don’t know what to do don’t know
what to where to go you know we’re available at the register more than appreciated letting to put in the local
view Henry’s been back in town he was here
after this performs performing downtown basically – really thanks for coming well he wrote the best investigative
journalist hey watch are you interviews ball going
up or jacquard useful for apologies this is Barbara Barbara Barbara Barbara y’all
better get going all those poor kids why I’ll talk about briefly yeah right so do you have

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