IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Attorney General Tom Miller's office is asking a judge to ignore its longstanding position that government settlement agreements are public records, saying it's irrelevant in a dispute over the University of Iowa's two-year delay in releasing such a document.
In a brief filed on behalf of the university Monday, assistant attorney general Jordan Esbrook urged Judge Douglas Russell to ignore Miller's 2004 "sunshine advisory" telling Iowans that settlements involving public agencies are never secret. University rules that say public records are released without consent of the subject are also "irrelevant," Esbrook wrote.
The office is defending the university against legal action by The Associated Press, which claims the university violated the Iowa Open Records Act in delaying access to a resignation agreement with surgeon John Chaloupka.
The AP requested the document and similar agreements in 2011. The university released six others but declined to release Chaloupka's, instead notifying his attorneys of the request and giving them time to file legal action to block its release. University lawyers had concluded the document was public, but nonetheless allowed the delay after Chaloupka opposed its release on grounds that judges found lacked merit.
A judge rejected Chaloupka's injunction request in 2012, ordering the university to release the document immediately. The university again refused, giving Chaloupka time to appeal. An appeals court upheld the judge's release order 3-0 in January, and it was made public in March.
The settlement showed Chaloupka was stripped of key duties after clashing with other doctors, but allowed to keep his $380,000 salary for one year.
While the AP prevailed in securing the release, the news cooperative is asking Russell to rule that the university violated the law and to award legal remedies, including an order requiring the university to pay its legal fees and assess a fine against the records custodian. It argues that officials ignored university rules, state law and Miller's sunshine advisory.
But Esbrook's brief argues the advisory and university policies are not "relevant or binding" on Russell, who should find the university didn't violate the law. A trial was held Monday, and Russell is expected to rule soon.
Miller has issued numerous "sunshine advisories" since 2001 advising officials and citizens on open records and meetings laws, which are designed to improve government transparency.
Miller spokesman Geoff Greenwood defended the brief Tuesday, saying the advisory titled "No Secret Settlements" doesn't address the issue before the court. He said the office doesn't dispute that settlements are public, but is defending the university's decision to notify Chaloupka of the AP's request.
In a deposition last week, university general counsel Carroll Reasoner also defended the decision to continue withholding the settlement after the 2012 decision that it immediately be released. Asked what it means when a court orders the university to do something immediately, she answered, "You wait and see whether they're going to appeal."