One of the more interesting facets of the controversy over confidential settlement agreements is the Senate Democrats’ retreat into secrecy even while they bludgeon the Branstad administration over a lack of transparency.
The Senate Democrats’ double standard was revealed when Iowa Republican Party Chairman Danny Carroll filed an open-records request with the Senate. He asked for copies of “pertinent documents related to matters before the Oversight Committee” investigating agreements that induced employees to keep quiet about terms of settlements. Carroll wanted to know if emails or documents would reveal whether Senate Democrats were pursuing this issue to score political points in the campaign for governor.
The Senate, which is controlled by Democrats including Sen. Jack Hatch, who is running against Gov. Terry Branstad, summarily denied Carroll’s request in a brief letter signed by Secretary of the Senate Michael Marshall.
Marshall wrote that the records Carroll requested “have not customarily been deemed public documents by the Senate, given that their release would almost certainly have a detrimental chilling effect on citizens’ constitutional rights and willingness to petition their elected officials.” And, in a dig at Carroll, the letter said “as a former member of the Iowa House of Representatives, I am sure you are aware that each house of the Iowa General Assembly has the power under Article III, Section 9, of the Iowa Constitution to determine its own rules of proceedings.”
The Iowa open-records statute does contain an exemption for certain communications from citizens to the government, but Senate Democrats could have redacted the names or deleted the most sensitive communications. Surely not everything Carroll asked for falls under that exemption, and the remaining records could have been release if the Democrats were inclined to do so.
But they were not so inclined, and it’s unlikely that either party in the General Assembly will ever be so inclined. Lawmakers have long taken the position that the open-records and open-meetings laws do not actually apply to the Legislature. And they have an unfortunate 1996 ruling from the Iowa Supreme Court that provides them cover.