Rob Sand gets off scot-free for refusing to turn over government emails from liberal blogger/activist Laura Belin, a state district court ruled last week. Sand withheld Belin’s emails with his chief of staff John McCormally until he was sued by the Kirkwood Institute, but according to Judge Robert Hanson, that was fine.
There is no timeline to produce emails under the Open Records law, Hanson ruled. And, according to Hanson, Sand “immediately produced” Belin’s email chain once it was discovered in his chief of staff’s personal email account.
The ruling is significant and hysterical for two reasons.
First, last year another Polk County district court judge ruled the exact opposite way in a case against Governor Reynolds that was brought by—you guessed it—Laura Belin.
In that case, Belin, Iowa Capitol Dispatch reporter Clark Kauffmann and Iowa Freedom of Information Council leader Randy Evans sued the Governor, claiming that she was responding too slowly to their open records requests and should therefore pay a fine. The Governor disagreed, arguing that there is no timeline to respond to open records requests and that, in any event, her office was justified in delaying the responses because of the overflow of work caused by the pandemic.
Polk County district court judge Joseph Seidlin sided with Belin and her journalist friends, at least in saying that they could sue the Governor and her staff for responding too slowly to open records requests. That case is now pending with the Iowa Supreme Court and will be heard on February 22.
But enter Rob Sand to steal Belin’s thunder.
Last year, the Kirkwood Institute, a good-government organization led by Alan Ostergren, asked Sand to produce all emails between him and his staff and Laura Belin.
In response, Sand refused to produce 10 email chains, claiming that he was auditing the Governor’s Office and any emails that Belin sent him that pertained to that audit were confidential under Iowa law. (Um, how is a “journalist’s” emails with an auditor part of the audit? We’ll leave that for another day.)
But there was another email chain that Sand didn’t produce but that Ostergren and a few dozen people had already seen at least part of. On June 4, 2021, after Sand put out a bogus attack against the Governor claiming that she violated Iowa law by appearing in a COVID PSA, Sand’s chief of staff, John McCormally, emailed Laura Belin to defend the Auditor’s use of his office for a political attack. Belin posted part of that email chain on her blog.
Ostergren sued Sand for failing to produce that entire email chain as requested, and now Judge Hanson has ruled that there’s no harm, no foul. Sand eventually produced the email to Ostergren in discovery, months after Ostergren filed his lawsuit, and Hanson says that’s just fine.
But if that’s true, if Sand wasn’t tardy and there is no timeline for producing emails in response to an open records request, then Belin’s lawsuit against the Governor is dead.
The irony is delicious.
But there’s a second reason why Judge Hanson’s ruling is newsworthy: It’s based on a lie.
Hanson said that Sand and McCormally can’t be faulted for initially refusing to produce the email because it was on McCormally’s personal email account and “the email chain was immediately produced once it was determined that it was responsible to [Ostergren’s] requests(s).”
But it wasn’t immediately produced. Not even close to immediate. In fact, on October 12, 2021, Des Moines Register reporter Daniel Lathrop reported that Sand refused to produce the same Belin/McCormally email chain to him. To repeat: Sand knew about the emails, was asked by Lathrop for the emails, and refused to produce them. Sand’s justification, at that time, was that he wasn’t “not the lawful custodian of the email.” Though he didn’t elaborate, Lathrop read Sand’s office as saying they wouldn’t produce government emails that were on personal email accounts.
As far as we know, Sand never produced the emails to Lathrop. And he didn’t give them to Ostergren until three months later, on January 18, 2022.
Iowa Field Report readers will remember that when Ostergren filed the lawsuit, Sand’s official spokesperson Sonya Heitshusen called him a “political hack.” But now he allows a lie to stand in court to escape the embarrassing situation he finds himself in. Is Sand, who always pretends to be an upstanding guy, not going to correct the record?
Don’t count on it. He plays the boy scout on TV, and the press—and now the courts—let him get away with it. But the reality is very different, as anyone who reads the Iowa Field Report well knows.