Two city government candidates held a press conference Thursday to announce their intent to seek all written, recorded or electronic records of several closed session Clinton City Council meetings over the previous two years. Mayoral candidate Ed O’Neill, and At-Large Council Seat candidate John Rowland seek to shed light on the events leading up to the $4.5 million settlement agreement with the US Department of Justice and whistleblower Timothy Schultheis in October 2010.
“We’re entitled to find out why we’re paying $4.5 million of our money,” O’Neill said. “It’s your money too.”
To that end, the pair has sent a formal request to City Attorney Jeff Farwell, requesting access to the records. The letter states a willingness to pay any costs or fees related to their release. Referenced is the section of Iowa code, 22.7.61, that they believe grants them access to all records of the closed sessions regarding the lawsuit.
A telephone call by the Clinton Herald to Farwell seeking comment has not been returned.
O’Neill said that all the decision making was done out of the public eye. He said that Schultheis’ initial complaint was in 2007, but it took years for the public to become aware. He said that even the City Council was not informed of Schultheis’ complaint until September 2009.
“When we found out about it, we were on the hook for $4.5 million,” O’Neill said.
And, since then, according to O’Neill and Rowland, no person or entity has shouldered the blame.
“There’s not one person accountable,” he said.
On Jan. 28, 2009, Mayor Rodger Holm and Fire Chief Mark Regenwether were sent a communication from the US DOJ requesting clarification on Medicare billing from 2005 to 2008.
The letter stated that 99 percent of emergency medical service billings were coded A0427, an ALS code that indicates trauma.
“From the records that we have reviewed, it does not appear that all services provided included an ALS emergency transport,” the letter said.
Schultheis alleged that the miscoded billings were done intentionally to receive more federal funding.
The proper billing coding, called BLS, should be used for more routine or basic emergency calls. However, BLS EMS calls are given less reimbursement through the federal Medicare plan.
The lawsuit claimed that the city violated the federal False Claims Act and knowingly presented or caused to be presented false or fraudulent claims for payment to the Medicare and Medicaid programs.
The city officially denied the accusations, but agreed to the settlement to “delay uncertainty, inconvenience, and expense of protracted litigation of the civil action,” according to language in the settlement. The first of 10 annual payments was due on Oct. 1 of last year.
Schultheis and his attorney, Benjamin Roach, of Des Moines, will receive 30 percent of the award.
Regenwether and EMS Director Andrew McGovern were fired as a result of the lawsuit, but were eventually reinstated after the Civil Service Commission determined that the city had not proven that the terminations were justified.
Both returned to work, and were given retroactive payment from the date of termination.
Iowa code allows a council to go into closed session to discuss personnel matters or matters of ongoing litigation, but O’Neill and Rowland said that since the matter has been resolved, it is time for those records to come out.
After consulting with several attorneys, they believe that the city is obligated to share the collected minutes under the open meetings law.
“(The attorneys) are of the unanimous opinion that those closed meeting tapes and all materials related to the closed session,” should be released, said Rowland, adding, “we’re hopeful about this that they’ll respond positively and soon.”
The letter, sent by certified mail, was signed for and received early Wednesday morning.
“The ball’s in their court now,” O’Neill said
However, the city’s hands may be tied in the matter.
Second Ward Councilman Mike Kearney, a member of the City Council during the closed session meetings being discussed, attended the press conference. Kearney said that he had personally attempted to get the records released, but was denied. He said he was told that a court order was necessary to unseal the records, and a city official seeking to do so would be like “the city suing itself.”
For the sake of transparency, Kearney said he’s been an advocate for the release of the records.
“I think it’s important for citizens to know how decisions are made on their behalf,” he said.
Gus Keefer, of the Clinton Labor Congress, was present at the press conference on behalf of the city’s public employees.
“Once they take away the public workers, the private sector doesn’t stand a chance,” Keefer said, adding that privatization of city services could be imminent. “Who’s going to pick up my garbage? We’re for progress. We want to help keep our people employed.”
Following the press conference, O’Neill and Rowland reasserted their belief that the city does have the ability to release the records without judicial intervention. Regardless, they said they plan to pursue this until the records are unsealed. Both expressed a desire to uncover the truth, even if their election bids are unsuccessful.