State Auditor Rob Sand was sued today by the Kirkwood Institute for violating Iowa’s public records law. The lawsuit challenges an essential narrative of Sand: that he is an apolitical public servant out to do the right thing. The suit starts a legal process that will likely haunt Sand.
It all started when Sand released an investigative report accusing Governor Kim Reynolds of violating the law when she appeared in a media campaign called “Step Up, Stop the Spread”– an effort to get Iowans to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The law prohibits spending public money to distribute the image of statewide elected officials. Sand claimed that the ads, which featured other notable Iowans like former Governor Tom Vilsack and Iowa wrestling legend Dan Gable, violated this statute.
But Sand’s report had a critical legal error: the name and likeness statute has an express exception for emergency response, which the ad campaign obviously was. Sand’s report never mentioned the exception, and when the governor’s office pointed it out, he was forced to issue an embarrassing addendum to his report hours later in the day. The whole situation has a real irony to it. Sand, Iowa Field Report readers will remember, is a lawyer and not a CPA. He faced heavy criticism during his run for office whether he was qualified to be state auditor. But he made a mistake about the law, not accounting when he issued this report.
The Kirkwood Institute, a nonprofit and nonpartisan public-interest law firm, investigated Sand’s faulty report. According to court documents, it filed a public records request with the auditor’s office for emails and other communications with Laura Belin, the far-left ideologue behind the Bleeding Heartland blog, and AP reporter Ryan Foley, well known in Iowa political circles for his deeply partisan slant against Republicans.
Both Belin and Foley had amplified the auditor’s report when it was released. Because of the apparent political overtones of Sand’s audit report, it was reasonable to think there had been coordination with the auditor’s office before the report was released. Email traffic with them would help show that Sand has misused his office in an attempt to engineer a political hit against the governor.
According to the lawsuit, the auditor’s office withheld “less than a dozen” email threads from its response to the Kirkwood Institute. Sand’s office cited two reasons: that all of its audit and examination records are confidential and that disclosure would harm an ongoing investigation or threaten the safety of individuals.
Pretty strong stuff, right? But here is the problem. Among the withheld email threads was an email that the Bleeding Heartland blog had already published in a story about the report. That’s right, the auditor’s office claimed an email was secret that a liberal blogger had already put out to the public. The email in question was an effort by Sand’s chief of staff to push back against the successful effort of the governor’s team to discredit the report.
According to one lawyer, Iowa Field Report showed the court documents to, “This will blow up in Rob Sand’s face. No judge is going to think that email was OK to keep secret.”
The lawyer also pointed out that Sand has the burden in this lawsuit. “This isn’t like a regular lawsuit where the plaintiff has to prove everything. Sand will have to convince the court he did the right thing. From what I see, he won’t be able to do that.”
Iowa Field Report reached out to the Auditor’s office for comment on the suit but received no reply.
Sand’s original “audit” of the “Step Up, Stop the Spread” campaign triggered a hearing by the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board to determine the legality of the campaign and the governor’s actions. On August 12th the board, comprised of both republicans and democrats, ruled unanimously that the Governor did not violate Iowa’s self-promotion law with the “Step Up, Stop the Spread” campaign. the decision was a humiliating blow for Sands office
A copy of the legal petition filed by the Kirkwood Institute is available below.