New law details firings of public workers

DES MOINES (AP) — Public employees in Iowa have been fired in recent months for misconduct such as theft, fraud and student mistreatment, according to records obtained under a new law that reveals those details for the first time.
An officer allegedly submitted fraudulent expense forms seeking reimbursement for 2,200 miles that he didn’t drive. A clerk was accused of having 400 work records buried in her desk that she claimed she had completed. And a paraeducator who worked with children with autism allegedly mistreated a student.
Documents detailing the firings and demotions of public employees have become available under a little-noticed but dramatic change to the Iowa Open Records Act signed by then-Gov. Terry Branstad in February. The Associated Press used the law to obtain records that shed light on an aspect of public sector work that had been kept under wraps for decades.
The Iowa open records law adopted in 1967 requires government agencies to make records available to requestors but has numerous exemptions, including one for “personal information in confidential personnel records.” Agencies routinely cited that provision to argue that disciplinary records were exempt from disclosure, and the Iowa Supreme Court agreed in 2012.
The amendment signed by Branstad requires agencies to release “the documented reasons and rationale” that employees are fired, demoted, or resign to avoid termination. The law requires agencies to notify employees that the documentation going in their personnel files may become public records after appeals are exhausted.
The change was tucked inside a larger bill that Republican lawmakers sped through both chambers cutting union rights from 180,000 public workers. The bill sparked some of the largest protests in the history of the Iowa Capitol — but few focused on the open records change.
States’ open records laws are mixed when it comes to public employee disciplinary records, with some requiring disclosure all or some of the time and others declaring them confidential. The varying policies reflect a debate that pits the public’s right to know against the privacy rights of employees.
Branstad had long called for allowing the release of information about proven misconduct by state employees.
“If an individual is found to have done something inappropriate, failed to perform their duty or damaged another person and then is terminated or dismissed because of it… it should be public,” Branstad said in January following the ouster of 13 employees accused of mistreating disabled residents at the state-run Glenwood Resource Center. Branstad said then his administration couldn’t discuss their cases.
Many Democrats and unions opposed the change. They worry employees accused of misconduct will suffer damage to their reputations and future job prospects — unfairly at times — while supervisors and political appointees will be protected since they can be fired at-will and documentation on their misdeeds won’t exist.
Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said she feared that those fired over a minor incident will suffer harsh consequences.
“Do we believe that people can get their act together and realize that what they did, how wrong it was, and that they won’t do it again?” she wondered.
To test the law, AP sent requests to 20 state and local agencies seeking the “documented reasons and rationale” for employees who have been fired, resigned or demoted since Feb. 17, the day Branstad signed the law.
Details of more than 30 cases were obtained. They included a Polk County officer who allegedly submitted inflated mileage reimbursement by listing an old home address, and a Department of Revenue clerk caught hiding uncompleted records.
The AP found some attempts to narrowly interpret the law to avoid disclosure of misconduct.
The Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship released a letter suggesting that a secretary was fired for theft but refused to elaborate.
The Cedar Rapids Community School District released a summary that said a paraeducator who works with autistic children was terminated after “a student under her care and supervision was not handled appropriately.” But the district refused to release any records, insisting the limited disclosure complied with the law.
That contention drew criticism from Rep. Dave Deyoe, R-Nevada and chairman of the Labor Committee that helped draft the change.
“It’s an open record and anything in the files that they have that’s associated with that dismissal, should be a public record and should be turned over,” he said.