Should prospective Iowa university donors' names be private?

State public information board hears arguments about confidentiality of potential donors, but question remains open

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DES MOINES — Whether the names of potential university donors are public information was considered by the Iowa Public Information Board on Thursday.

The issue arose as part of a complaint to the board from Des Moines Register reporter Jason Clayworth, who had requested records detailing potential donors who flew in an Iowa State University-owned airplane with President Steven Leath. ISU initially denied that request, saying the travel plans of these prospective donors fell under confidentiality exemptions in Iowa’s public records law.

“The foundation and university contains information about potential donors I do not believe should be in the public domain,” ISU General Counsel Michael Norton told the board at a meeting Thursday in Des Moines.

Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, argued the pool of potential donors is “bigger than the Grand Canyon.”

“Anyone is a potential donor until they tell you no,” Evans said. “If the names of people who travel with university officials are considered confidential, there’s no way for the public to know whether this is a worthy trip or there’s something else going on.”

Leath faced criticism last fall for his private use of ISU’s Cirrus CR-22 aircraft after he damaged the plane in a hard landing in 2015. An audit by the Iowa Board of Regents, which governs ISU and Iowa’s other public universities, raised questions about additional trips made by Leath.

Clayworth found some records inadvertently posted online that included information about specific ISU supporters who flew with Leath, Norton said. When Clayworth asked for a full version of these records, ISU refused, prompting Clayworth’s Nov. 23 complaint.

However, because Clayworth already had many of the unredacted records, ISU eventually decided to give him the full set, Norton said. Because of the resolution, the board did not have to rule on whether the records about potential donors were public information.

“It’s a gray area,” Norton said.

The board also accepted the complaint from Gavin Aronsen, the founder of the Iowa Informer website and a graduate teaching assistant at ISU, who wants floor plans for the Knoll, the state-owned residence of Leath. The complaint means Margaret Johnson, interim board director, will research the issue and report back to the board at a future meeting, she said.

The public information board, created in 2012 to enforce Iowa’s open records and open meetings laws, has reduced its meeting schedule and cut travel through June because of $75,000 slashed from the agency’s budget. Those changes, and a vacant deputy director position, have allowed the group to cut $40,000 so far, Johnson said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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