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The Iowa Public Information Board directed a state agency on Thursday to examine its director’s cellphone for text messages that were requested nine months ago by Clark Kauffman, Iowa Capital Dispatch’s deputy editor, as part of his investigation into unemployment benefits fraud at the time.
Iowa Workforce Development has not searched Director Beth Townsend’s cellphone for the messages despite Kauffman’s May 2021 request to view them, his six subsequent requests that the agency retain them, and his July 2021 IPIB complaint against the agency for not producing them.
IPIB took up the complaint Thursday after one of its investigators concluded the agency had likely violated Iowa’s open records law in regard to Kauffman’s request but recommended the board dismiss Kauffman’s complaint because the agency has taken steps to prevent future violations.
IWD has said it was unable to provide the text messages from Townsend’s state-owned cellphone because its service provider, Verizon Wireless, was unable to retrieve them.
“Someone from the legal counsel’s office should have simply walked down the hall to look at the director’s phone and accessed the messages there. That didn’t happen,” Kauffman told the board. “My concern is that it still hasn’t happened.”
Most board members expressed similar concerns. They delayed their decision on whether to dismiss the complaint or move to penalize the agency, and they asked IWD attorney David Steen to determine whether the messages are still available.
“I believe that’s going to be possible, yes,” Steen said, “but I retain the same concern that I don’t think I’m going to be able to produce a complete record in that regard.”
Steen has argued that Verizon was the best source for copies of all text messages — even though the company was unable to produce them — because “text messages are deleted on a regular basis” if they are a security concern, are spam or are otherwise irrelevant.
The board is expected to consider Kauffman’s complaint again next month after someone at IWD looks for the messages.
Kauffman requested those messages in May after IWD declined to answer his questions about comments Townsend made about unemployment fraud. He sought work-related messages that Townsend sent and received between March 1 and May 19, 2021.
Kauffman had also alleged in a separate complaint that IWD failed to produce all records he requested that pertained to an unemployment case — despite reassuring him twice that it did — until he provided evidence that more existed. IWD initially gave him 17 pages of documents but later released 380 more.
IPIB Special Counsel Zachary Goodrich, who investigated the allegations of both complaints, produced a “probable cause report” that concluded IWD failed on both fronts to comply with the state’s open records law.
This article first appeared in Iowa Capital Dispatch.