U of I police scandal follows a pattern

This editorial appeared in The Des Moines Register on March 7, 2016.

Just when you thought allegations surrounding the campus police at the University of Iowa couldn’t get much worse, the news broke last week that members of the Board of Regents were never told of the public safety director’s improper, and arguably illegal, acts.

It also appears that Interim Public Safety Director David Visin, either deleted or illegally withheld emails between himself and county officials concerning his involvement in a hit-and-run by his stepson.

It’s another reminder of why public entities in Iowa — the University of Iowa in particular — need to be more open. It turns out that the culture of secrecy that permeates the university results not only in citizens being kept in the dark, but also their elected and appointed decision-makers.

Last week, members of the Iowa Board of Regents’ subcommittee on campus safety and security acknowledged they learned about Visin’s actions only through a recent Associated Press story on the matter. And that story never would have been published had the AP not aggressively pursued the matter in the face of repeated stonewalling by public officials.

According to the AP, Visin and his 33-year-old stepson, Sean Crane, visited an Iowa City bar last June. They left the bar separately and, according to police, Crane crashed into two vehicles in the bar’s parking lot and was ejected from his truck. Crane then fled to his home, where Visin was waiting for him. They left in Visin’s truck, headed for Visin’s home, passing a deputy who was searching for Crane.

Aware that Crane was in Visin’s car, the deputy called Visin and instructed him to pull over. Visin refused, repeatedly asserting that he needed to get home to drop off a trailer he was pulling. Visin then dropped off Crane at a gas station and drove away before officers arrived. The officers eventually found Crane walking along the side of a highway, intoxicated and with an injury from the accident that required emergency medical treatment. Crane was charged with drunken driving and drug possession.

Visin now claims the true reason he didn’t pull over is that he’s a diabetic and was suffering from low blood sugar levels and needed to get home to inject himself with insulin. He says he didn’t tell the deputy this because he had been hiding his disease from his colleagues at the UI for fear of discrimination.

That “explanation” of a medical emergency doesn’t really square with the fact that Visin picked up Crane, drove off with him, and then dumped him at a gas station, knowing the police were looking for him. But that’s beside the point. Interfering with a criminal investigation and lying to the police are firing offenses for a police officer — or they certainly ought to be — even when the excuse is the “shame” of diabetes.

Visin disclosed the incident to his superior, UI’s senior vice president for finance and operations, Rod Lehnertz, shortly after it occurred. But the information was never passed on to the Regents’ subcommittee on public safety. On top of that, Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness declined to charge Visin and refused public-records requests for documents related to the incident until the AP threatened to file a complaint.

When the Iowa City Press-Citizen asked for Visin’s emails on the matter, Visin reportedly said he didn’t have any such records. However, Johnson County Sheriff Lonny Pulkrabek provided the newspaper with three email threads on the matter, all of which include messages sent to or from Visin. So why didn’t the university turn over Visin’s copies of those same emails when asked?

The university says Visin claimed to have no such records, and therein lies another layer of deceit. The school has a longstanding policy of letting the very individuals who are the subjects of an Open Records Request — the people who have the greatest incentive to bury any records that provide evidence of their own misdeeds — search their own hard drives for requested emails and declare whether the documents exist. The policy allows UI staffers to illegally withhold information while providing a very thin veneer of plausible deniability for the school’s laughably named “transparency officer.”

Now UI’s president, Bruce Harreld, says “we don’t see any violation of university policies” with regard to Visin’s actions. “We don’t see any reason to do anything other than what we are already doing.”

Of course not. There are none so blind as those that will not see, as the saying goes.

Fortunately, Visin intends to step down from his position as the interim public safety director and return to his previous job as as an associate director who deals with support services. A search is now underway for a new public safety director.

The University of Iowa has a long, ugly history of concealing information from the public, and that clearly isn’t going to change under the current leadership. But it would be nice if the school hired a public safety director who has some respect for either the truth or the law.