Tuesday, August 9, 2022

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Guest Commentary

Storm Lake Times: Attorney general says we lied


Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller called Tuesday to express his dissatisfaction with our editorial from Sept. 13 suggesting that he should retire. We expressed the opinion that, after 28 years in office, it is time for Miller to move on and make way for a successor with the fire and passion that Miller once had. The pin that popped our bubble was the Attorney General’s Office involvement in keeping secret a settlement document from a lawsuit filed against the University of Iowa by a former surgeon employed by the university.

Miller told us that our statement of the case at issue was “a total lie.”

Fair enough.

Let’s parse his charge.

The Associated Press asked for five or six documents related to lawsuit settlements by the state. All but one were summarily made public. The final one, involving the surgeon, was not released for 17 days. The settlement, signed by one of Miller’s assistants, agreed that the deal would be kept secret “to the extent permitted by law.” The settlement language was in direct contradiction of an Attorney General’s “Sunshine Advisory” stating that all state settlements are public records and must be released.

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The Attorney General’s Office should not have promised confidentiality. It should have advised the university that the settlement documents should be released immediately. The U of I or any other custodian of such records should not sit on requests for 17 days.

And on the 18th day…

Legal counsel for the state did not prevent the university or its agents from advising the surgeon’s lawyers that the AP had requested the document. Hence, the surgeon’s attorney filed a court motion asking to block the release of the documents. A judge then ordered that the documents should be made public.

The AP accumulated significant legal expenses pursuing these documents. It has asked the court for compensation. The state insists that it has no obligation to pay. Since the surgeon (acting on a tip from the state) sought to block release it should be up to the surgeon to pony up if anyone must, the attorney general maintains.

It is clear to us that the state’s attorneys were acting in concert with the plaintiff to keep that settlement secret. Miller says no such thing has happened, is happening or will happen. And he has a paper trail to prove it in the form of court documents where a motion might have been filed with a wink to the other side.

Call us liars if you will.

But our point is this:

Tom Miller as a younger man was an advocate for the people. As a more cautious, older man who seeks to maintain his position, he has become an advocate for the government. When he should be arguing for complete openness in Iowa government, he is acting directly and indirectly to maintain darkness where state law says the sun should shine.

Miller tells us that he is an advocate for open government and open records.

Then we do not understand why his office would allow the state to attempt to assess The Des Moines Register $32,000 to retrieve copies of emails relating to horrific abuse at the state juvenile home at Toledo.

Or why a state board is necessary to hear complaints over open government violations when the Attorney General’s Office should be policing those complaints. (The board is necessary because the attorney general did not act.)

We said last week that too much hubris has grown around Miller for him to be an effective advocate for the little guy. The AP may be able to afford legal expenses. The Des Moines Register may be able to afford $32,000 to retrieve public documents. But what about the city street employee who wants public records related to how the IPERS pension board manages its funds, or the teacher who tries to find out how the superintendent is spending his travel expense budget? We find that there is no advocate at the state level, other than the AP and The Des Moines Register. It certainly is not Tom Miller.

Gen. Miller is an honest and decent man. He has devoted his career to the law and public service. We are grateful. But the lawyer in him should know the difference between a lie and a statement of facts that does not comport with the attorney general’s position. He must know that he has evolved into being an apologist for the state without being quite sure how he got there.

We need an attorney general who will fight every day with all his energy for the little guy, for the truth, for government accountability and for justice. Tom Miller used to be that attorney. We need an attorney general for the people, and Miller stepping aside would help find that special person. CV

This editorial reprinted with permission from the Sept. 20, 2013, edition of The Storm Lake Times.

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