CORONAVIRUS

Former Iowa public health official alleges Governor's Office restricted public information on COVID-19

Polly Carver-Kimm, ousted in July, files suit alleging violations of state whistle-blower laws

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds speaks during a press conference updating Iowan's on the status of COVID-19 cases on Thursday
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds speaks during a press conference updating Iowan’s on the status of COVID-19 cases on Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Johnston. There have been 66 additional positive cases of Iowans with COVID-19, for a total of 614 positive cases and two additional deaths according to the IDPH. Brian Powers/pool, The Register

The former spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Public Health ousted earlier this year alleges the Governor’s Office violated the state’s whistle blower laws and made an effort to strictly control the flow of information regarding COVID-19 and the state’s response to the pandemic.

Polly Carver-Kimm, who was let go from her long-held role as the state Department of Public Health spokeswoman in July, filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Gov. Kim Reynolds, the Governor’s Communications Director Pat Garrett and the state of Iowa.

On July 15, she was informed by Department Director Gerd Clabaugh she could choose to resign or be fired due to restructuring of the agency. She initially chose termination, but agreed to an involuntary resignation after being told she would forfeit her accumulated vacation time if terminated, according to the lawsuit.

Carver-Kimm had been the public information officer for the state public health department since 2007.

In a Thursday news conference to announce the lawsuit, Carver-Kimm said during the state’s response to the novel coronavirus, the Governor’s Office would use information from the Iowa Department of Public Health “in the way that would best serve the governor’s agenda and needs.”

“I don’t want to say the public’s health is in danger because of this, I just feel there was a more open flow of information that could have benefited the public in their decision making about how they wanted to handle the pandemic, and that would come through providing that information to the media,” she said during the Zoom news conference.

While she concedes that it wasn’t wrong for the governor’s office to centralize communications during an emergency response, she said the information provided was chosen carefully and vetted several times by the governor’s staff, “even though it appeared to be simple data that we would normally provide.”

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Amy McCoy, current spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health, declined to respond to The Gazette’s questions, stating the department does not comment on pending litigation.

Carver-Kimm’s attorney, Tom Duff with Duff Law Firm in West Des Moines, filed the suit Wednesday in Polk County District Court.

Carver-Kimm “was stripped of her duties and later terminated after she made repeated efforts to comply with Iowa’s Open Records law by producing documents to local and national media regarding the state of Iowa’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the lawsuit, which is available on the Duff Law Firm’s website.

She had been relieved from handling communications related to COVID-19 and fulfilling public records requests in March.

In early March 2020, when the state activated emergency protocols because of the pandemic, Carver-Kimm told reporters Thursday, the state activated the use of Emergency Command Center, or ECC, email addresses for all COVID-19 related communications.

She recalled an incident when she received a records request early in the pandemic seeking information that would be included in these ECC email address, not the official’s state email address.

An assistant attorney general with the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, who typically works with the agency in complying with open-records requests, confirmed to Carver-Kimm the ECC emails should be included in the response.

But in the several open-records requests that followed, the ECC emails were never searched and relevant documents in those accounts were not produced, the lawsuit states.

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“I repeatedly asked, ‘Should we ask for those emails to be searched?’ and I was just ignored,” Carver-Kimm said Thursday.

Carver-Kimm, a former journalist, said during the news conference the response regarding ECC emails was a main driver for filing the lawsuit because she “feels very deeply that the media was not treated fairly.”

The petition recounts an instance in which Garrett, the governor’s communications officer, told Carver-Kimm to hold off on the handoff of records approved by the assistant attorney general. According to the lawsuit, in the 13 years Carver-Kimm had been at the department, the Governor’s Office had never been involved in the process of complying with open-records requests.

The lawsuit also recounts other incidents in the months between March and her departure in July, stating she repeatedly was criticized or reprimanded for answering reporters’ inquiries or for fulfilling public-records requests from local and national outlets.

In late April, she refused to name a journalist who had brought “the unsanitary working conditions and lack of social distancing at the State Emergency Operations Center” to her attention. She was relieved of more duties shortly after, the lawsuit states.

In May 2020, Carver-Kimm fulfilled an open-records request for the New Yorker magazine, as well as other state and national outlets.

Later that month, after the New Yorker began asking questions “critical of the State Hygienic Lab” referring the documents Carver-Kimm produced, the lawsuit alleges Iowa Department of Public Health Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter sent an email questioning whether producing the documents was legal.

On June 4, Carver-Kimm was “no longer allowed to respond to any open records requests, including those dealing with COVID-19,” according to the lawsuit.

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She also was no longer permitted to respond to media inquiries involving COVID-19 or other infectious diseases on June 15, the lawsuit continues.

Other events unfolded, including an instance in which Carver-Kimm provided data to the Des Moines Register that resulted in a July 12 article that was “likely embarrassing to Gov. (Kim) Reynolds,” the lawsuit alleges.

On July 15, she was informed she could either resign or be terminated.

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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