Branstad administration deploys Culver tactic, charges for open records review

BY LUKE VOELZ | JULY 25, 2011 7:20 AM

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Iowa public-record review fees now come at a hefty cost — and the Iowa City Press-Citizen is willing to pay.

Newspaper officials agreed July 20 to pay more than $400 for a half-year's worth of emails between the state Board of Regents and Gov. Terry Branstad's staff, with The Daily Iowan agreeing to cover half the cost.

Branstad decried legal record fees in his 2010 campaign, promising to eliminate former Gov. Chet Culver's fees of $52.49 per hour past an initial three hours. However, the Governor's Office now charges $33.65 per hour after three hours of review, spending roughly 16 minutes on a single email.

Kathleen Richardson, the executive secretary of the of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the organization has seen more Iowa governing bodies — beginning at the state level and working down to local — charging additional legal review fees over the last three years.

"It's something that the Freedom of Information Council has been really concerned about," she said, "Because obviously, if you start charging for attorney time, it increases the fees exponentially. It has the very real potential to pricing most Iowans out of access to information that they are legally entitled to."

Richardson questioned whether attorneys should charge to review fees because, in many cases, attorneys are on the governing body's staff and such legal review is part of their regular duties.

However, Branstad communications director Tim Albrecht remained confident that the fees were reasonable and necessary.

He said Larry Johnson Jr., a deputy legal counsel for Branstad, works to reduce the scope of clients' requests to what is absolutely necessary — in most cases, under three hours.

"We have to charge [for requests over three hours]," Albrecht said. "Because of budget constraints and the fact that the Governor's Office has significantly fewer employees than our predecessor — at significant savings to taxpayers."

Richardson said she was skeptical about Albrecht's explanation.

"It's a rationale that doesn't make a whole lot of sense," she said. "Even if they're charging or not, they're still required legally to respond to records requests."

Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, said Johnson's method risked allowing government officials to restrict information under the guise of narrowing scope.

"There's a a real fine line between trying to get exactly at the question and information someone's asking versus only giving info that you want to give out," he said. "I'd rather give someone 40 pages and find out in two pages than have someone filter it and only give you one page."

Jacoby criticized Branstad for enacting the legal fees after initially campaigning against them in 2010, but he also extended his disapproval to former Gov. Chet Culver, also a Democrat.

"I disagree with both governors on this," he said. "That's one bipartisan note that neither office should be charging at that rate for public information."

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