Washington Co. Attorney: workload prevented timely records response

By Erin Jordan, The Gazette

DES MOINES — Washington County Attorney Larry Brock said he didn’t knowingly violate Iowa’s open records law, he was just too busy to provide public records to a former employee.

Brock was charged May 30 with breaking the public records law — the first charges for a new board created to enforce access to state government. He presented his case before Administrative Law Judge Margaret LaMarche Thursday in Des Moines.

“At any given time, I’m personally responsible for 50 to 75 active cases. My office is involved in courtroom activities four days a week,” Brock said. “We’re extremely busy and have very little downtime to address any other issues than those listed above.”

Brock is accused of waiting 96 days to provide public records to Robert Bellmer, a Washington County park ranger who was fired Jan. 27. Bellmer used Iowa’s Open Records Law, Iowa Code Section 22.2, to seek correspondence between Brock and Conservation Board members from Nov. 1, 2013, through March 1, 2014.

Brock said Thursday Bellmer’s request was a “broad overreach” and a “fishing expedition,” but later acknowledged the law doesn’t prohibit these things.

He spent about 30 minutes during the hearing describing a busy schedule he said kept him from providing the records for more than three months. Hearings, depositions and two felony trials also prevented Brock from responding to several emails from Margaret Johnson, deputy director for the Iowa Public Information Board, he said.

The Iowa Legislature created the IPIB in 2012, but the board didn’t start accepting complaints until last July. The board has the authority to issue informal advice and declaratory orders as well as institute civil fines.

Johnson testified she emailed Brock at least four times between April 15 and May 16 and left at least one voice mail. In the May 16 email, she warned Brock that he had until May 27 to provide Bellmer with the respond or the IPIB would file charges.

He did not provide the records until June 6.

Iowa Code gives public records custodians up to 20 calendar days to respond to open records requests, unless they are trying to file an injunction to stop the release or trying to determine if the record is confidential.

If Brock is found to have violated open records law, he could face a civil penalty of up to $500 and reasonable attorney’s fees. But if he “knowingly violated” the law, the penalty ranges from $1,000 to $2,500.

“I did not knowingly violate provisions of the open records law,” Brock said. “If the court believes there was an unreasonable delay, I would ask it (the penalty) not exceed $500.”

The public information board discussed in July whether to accept a plea agreement with Brock which would have required him to pay $100. Board member rejected the deal, saying the penalty was too low. Brock will serve as county attorney through Dec. 31 after losing his June primary.

LaMarche said she hopes to issue a written ruling within 30 days.

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