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Editorial: More secrecy in Iowa government

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MAY 02, 2014 5:00 AM

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It seems that the state of Iowa has taken to a pattern of secrecy. At least, that’s what surfacing records of secret settlements paid out by state universities would suggest. According to records obtained Wednesday by the Des Moines Register, the state’s public universities have paid at least $1.16 million to hidden parties through settlements not made open to the public. Additionally, $1.17 million have been paid in settlements that did not include confidentiality clauses but still were not openly publicized.

These reports come shortly after the news that more than $500,000 in settlements were paid to 24 different parties by the state government confidentially.

Notably, the University of Iowa paid around $300,000 to an unidentified person for an unidentified reason in September 2013. Upon further investigation, the Register found on Thursday that the settlement had been between the University of Iowa and a former member of the women’s rowing team who had sustained an injury because of intense training. Another document detailed a 2013 separation settlement with a research assistant who reportedly had been assaulted by her supervisor in 2008, in a case already known to the public.

Given the attention paid to rising costs and annual funding for the UI, it’s unsettling to learn that such large sums of money — many times more than the cost of a year of tuition alone — are being spent on settlements that aren’t proactively disclosed to the public. Considering the number of students graduating this year who will struggle financially — thanks to loans and a still poor job market — it is perhaps even more unsettling that public institutions such as the University of Iowa are tossing around such sums of money in secrecy. 

The university claims not to have operated in secrecy, that it reported what was required by law to report. While we believe that is true, it is unfortunate that in cases involving large settlements with public employees, the minimum standard of disclosure is seen as good enough.

The recent lack of transparency only adds to the suspicion involving the honesty and integrity of public institutions. One may recall the outrage over sexual assault that occurred just a few months ago. In response to rising reports of sexual misconduct, the university stepped up its efforts to curb sexual assault — although it only happened after students and other people began crying foul once it got a good look at the previous sweep-it-under-the-rug mentality.

That’s not to equate the horrors of sexual assault and rape to the secret spending of several hundred thousand dollars, nor is it a claim that the university had been ignoring cases of sexual misconduct, but — as taxpayers and students — it should worry us that drastic, necessary steps are taken only after major issues are brought to the public’s attention. State Board of Regents representatives contend that new transparency measures are now in place, but where were they before these settlements? 

So, what’s the real solution? Shortly after allegations involving secret settlements and his administrative staff, Gov. Terry Branstad set an example by firing Iowa Department of Administrative Services Director Mike Carroll. Does somebody in some seat of power over the state’s universities also need to be fired? And even if someone is thrown under the bus, will that really change anything?

Iowa is a state that prides itself on being home to friendly and honest people. Even those visiting the university as temporary, out-of-state students will recognize this claim. Operating covertly, secretly spending large sums of money for unknown reasons — purposefully or not — is a poor representation of the values of being an Iowan. We can only hope more instances of secrecy don’t surface in the state. More specifically, we can only hope more instances of secrecy don’t exist at all. 


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