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Iowa Watchdog

Iowa officials stall release of welfare transactions

4/4/2013

DES MOINES – Iowa officials continue to stall in handing over detailed reports of where public welfare money is being spent months after being asked to disclose the information.

Officials with the Iowa Department of Human Services have yet to respond to a March 15 letter from Alonzo Wickers IV, a media law attorney for Iowa Watchdog. In it, Wickers contested state officials’ denial of an initial request in January for the information, saying their response did not fall within the exemptions afforded under state Freedom of Information laws.

Transactions reviewed by Watachdog.org in other states, including New Mexico, showed transactions and ATM withdrawals at strip clubs, bars and casinos.

Iowa law requires public entities to respond immediately to routine requests for information, but allows them 10 business days or 20 calendar days for a “good faith, reasonable delay.” If a public agency, such as the Department of Human Services, fails to respond or fulfill requests there is little recourse for those seeking the information. The only way to force compliance is by taking them to court, said Kathleen Richardson, executive secretary for the Iowa Freedom of Information Coalition.

BLOCKING SCHEME: Iowa continues to block the release of EBT transactions.

BLOCKING SCHEME: Iowa continues to block the release of EBT transactions.

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“It’s probably one of the most common problems in the state – where an entity like a city council just ignores a request,” Richardson said. “The mainstream media have fallen on tough times in recent years. But they are still the ones to a certain degree with the resources to take government entities to court if the journalists believe they are violating the law.”

When contacted by Iowa Watchdog on Wednesday, Munns said the department was working on a response to the request but could not give details as to when it might be provided. He also declined to explain the delay.

“We will get it to you when we are finished with it,” Munns said. “It shouldn’t take much longer.”

While state officials in the Hawkeye State have disputed that the records are public, Watchdog.org organizations in other states have obtained the information, including in Colorado, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Kansas.

Munns has said one reason Iowa can’t produce the data is because it contracts with a third-party to manage the program.

Like Iowa, Kansas contracts with a third party to handle its debit card system for its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. State officials initially pushed back but, eventually, provided the information.

Iowa Watchdog first requested in January transaction information from the Iowa Department of Human Services, and Munns declined to provide it, saying that federal banking privacy laws prohibit even the state from accessing basic information regarding transactions. Iowa contracts with Xerox to manage the preloaded debit cards given to more than 90 percent of the state’s welfare recipients.

State officials also have yet to make their contract with Xerox accessible to Iowa Watchdog after receiving the request to view it more than a month ago. Munns referred the matter to Iowa Workforce Development, which holds the master contract with Xerox. Kerry Koonce, spokeswoman, then directed the matter to the Department of Administrative Services. Officials there have not responded to multiple requests for the information.

Because of privacy concerns, records detailing the time, date, location and amount of transactions from the $100 million program are inaccessible to the state and public, he said.

Wickers challenged the state’s response, saying the information requested doesn’t violate privacy laws because Iowa Watchdog did not request the personal information, such as names, of recipients.

Also, the federal Right to Financial Privacy Act, which the state also cited as its reason for not providing the information, applies only to the federal government, Wickers wrote.

“IowaWatchdog.org’s sister news organizations have obtained virtually identical information about EBT transactions from public agencies in other states,” 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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