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Iowa Watchdog

Iowa can’t hide EBT purchase data

3/15/2013

DES MOINES – Officials with the Iowa Department of Human Services are not protected by state or federal laws in their refusal to release details regarding where welfare money is being spent, according to at least one media law attorney.

Iowa Watchdog recently requested two months’ worth of transactions made on the Electronic Benefit Transaction cards used by more than 90 percent of the estimated 16,000 families who received money in 2012 under the state’s Family Investment Program. The program aims to provide poor or struggling Iowans with the necessities.

Roger Munns, spokesman with the Iowa Department of Human Services, denied the request, saying federal banking laws prohibited even the state from accessing basic information, including the date, time, location and the amount of transactions. That means the state has not maintained any oversight of a program that costs taxpayers roughly $100 million a year.

State continues refusal in releasing welfare transaction information.

State continues refusal in releasing welfare transaction information.

Alonzo Wickers IV, a media law attorney for Iowa Watchdog, challenged the department’s claims that providing the information would violate privacy laws, saying the news organization did not request personal information. Additionally, state officials cannot hide information by contracting with third parties, he said in a letter to Munns.

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The department also claimed the information was protected from disclosure by the federal Right to Financial Privacy Act. That law, however, only applies to the federal government, Wickers wrote.

“Privacy concerns do not in any way justify DHS’ refusal to release these records,” he said.

Ken Bunting, executive director for the National Freedom of Information Coalition, has previously echoed Wickers’ arguments, noting that it didn’t make sense for the federal government to restrict access to that information when it will require states to track it beginning next year.

Federal lawmakers recently passed legislation in an effort to crack down on welfare purchases. Under the law, all states must prevent recipients from using cash benefits in liquor stores, gambling establishments and adult entertainment businesses by 2014. States that fail to establish such policies risk losing federal funding.

Iowa receives $44.8 million in federal funding for the program. Of that, $6.6 million is at risk.

It’s not clear what oversight the state has of the program, because officials have yet to produce a copy of Iowa’s contract with Xerox. Watchdog requested the document roughly a month ago and was directed to the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, which is the only agency that holds a printed copy of the document. Spokesman Caleb Hunter did not return calls or emails requesting access.

Iowa is one of a handful of states that contracts out the program to a private provider.

Officials at the Department of Human Services have yet to detail plans of how they will comply with the new federal law, especially given their alleged inability to access the information they need.

Other states have provided media organizations with similar information, including New Mexico and New York. Both showed transactions and ATM withdrawals at strip clubs, bars and casinos.

“IowaWatchdog.org’s sister news organizations have obtained virtually identical information about EBT transactions from public agencies in other states, including Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Kansas,” Wickers wrote. “These records are plainly public under Iowa law.”

Contact Sheena Dooley at dooley@iowawatchdog.org. Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for Watchdog.org, where this story first appeared.

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