In the right, upper corner of www.iowaattorneygeneral.gov, there is a picture of Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller with a quotation that reads, “Our mission is to use the law to serve the people of Iowa. We’re glad you visited and we hope you find exactly what you need.”
And when you scan through the page’s list of “What We Do,” you’ll see a number of important ways the Iowa Attorney General’s office is supposed to be representing the interests of individual Iowans: protecting consumers, working with farmers, helping victims of crime, protecting the environment, protecting charitable giving, raising child support awareness, enforcing tobacco laws, protecting utility customers and issuing attorney general opinions.
But amid all the other important information and helpful links provided on that homepage, there is no mention of how the AG office’s responsibility for “representing state government” often presents an irresolvable conflict of interest for Miller and his staff: When individual Iowans need protection from public officials/employees accused of violating state law and procedures, the attorney general’s office represents the general public making the accusation as well as the state government being accused.
Over the past decade, we’ve found that Miller’s office, when faced with this conflict of interest, typically tries to resolve it to the benefit of state government. This has been especially true when it comes to ensuring government officials and institutions abide by both the letter and the spirit of Iowa’s open government laws. And it’s why we pushed for years for the Iowa Legislature to create an independent Public Information Board that could hear and evaluate such cases without facing the conflicts faced by the AG’s office. (That board, which lawmakers finally created in 2012, will meet Thursday in Iowa City.)
So we can’t say we were surprised earlier this month to hear Iowa’s ombudsman, Ruth Cooperrider, tell The Des Moines Register that Miller’s staff is increasingly attempting to interfere with her office’s independent authority to investigate complaints about state and local government.
Nor were we surprised to learn that Miller’s office was arguing that the University of Iowa shouldn’t be required to provide details about a settlement claim to one of its former surgeons. (Although, given how the AG office’s previous “Sunshine Advisory” held that government settlement agreements are public records, we were somewhat surprised the office would so blatantly ask a judge to ignore its own earlier advice.)
Nor were we surprised when newspapers like the Storm Lake Times responded by editorializing that, after 28 years in office, it’s time for Miller to retire.
If Miller and his staff are going to use the law to serve state government over serving the people of Iowa, then they need to get out of the way of those independent agencies who are working to ensure the public’s interests are represented as well.