A longtime employee of the Iowa Department of Public Health claims she was forced to resign after responding to routine public records requests about the coronavirus pandemic.
In a press conference Thursday after she filed a wrongful discharge lawsuit, former IDPH spokesperson Polly Carver-Kimm claimed the governor’s office chose to use information from her department “in the way that would best serve the governor's agenda and needs.”
“I don’t want to say the public’s health is in danger because of this,” said Carver-Kimm, who worked for the department for more than a decade before being ousted in July. “I just feel there was a more open flow of information that could have benefited the public in their decision making about how they wanted to handle the pandemic, and that would come through providing that information to the media.”
In a statement from Chief of Staff Sara Craig, the governor’s office said the lawsuit filed by Carver-Kimm was “without merit, and we will be working with the Iowa Attorney General's Office to respond in court."
Iowa is currently one of the worst coronavirus hot spots in the Midwest, with more than 66,000 confirmed cases and 1,100 deaths to date. The state had the highest rate of increase in COVID-19 cases nationally last week, and the fifth-highest positivity rate increase—a fact Gov. Kim Reynolds noted in a press conference Wednesday, while simultaneously rejecting the White House’s recommendation to close bars in more than 60 counties. Reynolds has also ignored suggestions to close gyms, limit indoor gatherings and implement a mask mandate.
According to Carver-Kimm’s lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court, the former spokeswoman was in charge of all IDPH communications until March of this year. In her press conference, she claimed she was "heavily involved" with the department’s coronavirus response at the start of the pandemic. But as the situation intensified, she said, the department began consolidating control over press communications and filtering requests through the governor’s office.
The former spokeswoman claimed the governor’s office had never been involved in the process of public records requests before the pandemic started. But on at least one occasion, she claimed in her lawsuit, the governor’s communications director told her to “hold” the production of records already approved through the usual channels. In early March, she said, IDPH Deputy Director Sarah Reisetter informed her that all press releases should go through the governor’s office.
In April, the department received a coronavirus-related public records request for emails from specific IDPH email addresses. Carver-Kimm said she asked the assistant attorney general whether she should also include emails sent by those same officials using their emergency control center email accounts, which were activated when the pandemic started, and was told yes. But when she asked the same question for other, similar records requests afterward, she received no answer, she claimed on Friday.
"I repeatedly asked, ‘Should we ask for those emails to be searched?’” she said at the press conference. “And I was just ignored.”
In another instance, Carver-Kimm said she responded to a request for documents from The New Yorker and USA Today by saying that another outlet had already made a similar request, and that she could produce the documents immediately if they tailored their request slightly—a common practice used to save time for both the press and the government. The outlets later asked Carver-Kimm to produce all responses to open records requests submitted by other news agencies.
When Reisetter learned that she complied with these requests, Carver-Kimm said, she responded by asking whether doing so “was even legal.” Shortly after, the department barred her from responding to any open records requests, she claimed. Two days after the resulting article was published in The New Yorker, Carver-Kimm was banned from responding to any media inquiries at all involving COVID-19, she claimed.
Finally, in early July, Carver-Kimm said she responded to a request from the Des Moines Register asking for the pregnancy termination statistics for the State of Iowa, which is publicly available information. The resulting article showed a 25 percent increase in pregnancy terminations, despite Gov. Reynolds promising to kick abortion providers out of family planning programs. Three days after the article was published, Carver-Kimm was told she could either resign or be fired, due to department restructuring. She chose to involuntarily resign.
At the time of her resignation, she claimed, five people were doing the job that she formerly did on her own.
“That’s not restructuring,” she said. “That’s a systematic and deliberate effort to thwart open communication.”