Secrecy doesn't serve Indian Hills Community College's best interests

There’s an old expression that officials of Indian Hills Community College obviously have not heard about — or have chosen to ignore.

The expression is simple: If you find yourself in a hole, stop shoveling.

But the school continues to shovel — digging itself ever deeper into legal trouble and into a public relations quagmire.

The Daily Iowegian newspaper in Centerville had a blockbuster report last week that contained bizarre disclosures that have been the talk of the town since the newspaper hit the streets:

Both of the Indian Hills baseball coaches were forced out in May after several players went to college officials with information about potentially illegal activities involving the coaches.

Players were required to work security and crowd control jobs at University of Iowa football games and Minnesota Vikings NFL games, with most, if not all, of the compensation going to the baseball program.

Foreign student-athletes were provided with aliases by the coaches so the players could circumvent a federal immigration law that prohibits people in the United States on student visas from working jobs off-campus.

The college acted swiftly after a few players went to them with details about the scheme. But almost as swiftly, college officials drew the curtains shut to keep anyone from learning what had happened with the baseball program.

The disclosures became public only after months of reporting by the Iowegian’s editor and a sports reporter in the face of the unrelenting lack of cooperation by Indian Hills officials.

The journalists submitted numerous requests for public records. They persisted even after the college tried to scare them away by saying the Iowegian would have to pay $5,200 to obtain an unknown number of emails between the coaches, athletics director and the college’s international affairs adviser about the work players did at football games in Iowa City and Minneapolis.

It’s clear to everyone except Indian Hills President Marlene Sprouse and college attorney Kristy Latta that they cannot keep the brewing scandal from the public.

In 2017, the Legislature enacted broad changes in the laws pertaining to government employees. One change requires government officials to make public the “documented reasons and rationale” for the termination, demotion or resignation in lieu of termination of an employee.

But the college said that law does not apply in this case because head coach Cam Walker and assistant Steve Kletke were not fired. Their contracts simply were not renewed, the college claimed.

There is one flaw with this explanation: The college could not provide contracts with the coaches.

Then the college provided two “letters of at-will employment” that had each coach’s name and salary on them. But there was no end date for the at-will employment, and neither coach signed the letters.

The college can’t have it both ways. The clear intent of the changes enacted last year by lawmakers was that government employers have a duty to explain “why” when an employee — even a baseball coach — is fired, demoted or is forced to resign in lieu of being fired.

Without a contract and even with letters of at-will employment, the coaches were like every other government worker in Iowa. They could be fired for any reason, but the changes the Legislature made in the personnel records law last year require the employer to say why an employee is fired or demoted.

Sprouse, the Indian Hills president, fails to understand that the school’s efforts to hide the truth from the public only serve to harm to the college’s reputation. Donors will ask themselves whether they want to make a gift to a school that has issues with public accountability.

There already are demands for federal investigators to get to the bottom of what was going on in the Indian Hills baseball program. The college faces the very real possibility its coaches could face federal criminal charges and its foreign students could be deported.

District Judge Randy DeGeest, in an unrelated case in Ottumwa earlier this year, provided a piece of wisdom that Indian Hills administrators would be wise to read and heed.

“Governmental entities are in place to serve the public, and the public has the right to see and inspect documents to ensure the public is being served in an appropriate and legal manner,” DeGeest wrote in his ruling.

The judge is correct, and Indian Hills officials who think one roadblock after another is serving the best interests of the people of Iowa are wrong.

Randy Evans is the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. He is a former editorial page editor and assistant managing editor of The Des Moines Register. Visit the Iowa Freedom of Information Council website at http://ifoic.org. Evans can be reached at DMRevans2810@gmail.com.