Unveiling the hidden truth

The following editorial appeared in Friday’s edition of the Storm Lake Times. The editorial was written by the newspaper’s editor, Art Cullen.

The editorial makes an excellent case why county officials are mistaken for failing to keep the public informed about the cost to the three counties of defending the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit and the financial arrangements that have been agreed to to pay the counties’ attorney fees.


We are proud to stand with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council in seeking the release of public records from Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties that would tell us how the counties are financing their defense of a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works over nitrate pollution of the Raccoon River.

Regardless of your opinion about the merits of the water works’ lawsuit, the public deserves to know who is paying law firms in Des Moines and Washington, D.C., and under what terms.

To date, we have been completely rebuffed by county supervisors who are handling the affair. We have sought Sac County Auditor Jim Dowling for comment, but he will not give us the courtesy of a “no comment.” Dowling is supposed to be handling the slush fund used to pay the blue-chip firms.

We believe Buena Vista County Auditor Sue Lloyd when she says she knows nothing of the arrangements to pay the lawyers. She is one of the most honest people we know.

So, that means that a bill has not come across her desk from either law firm, which suggests that Buena Vista County hasn’t had to pay any legal bills except to its own drainage attorney, Gary Armstrong of Storm Lake.

So who is?

That is the question to which local property taxpayers deserve an answer.

We believe it is a combination of Farm Bureau and other agribusiness groups. That’s fine, so far as it goes. That is all we are truly asking: How much is the bill and who is paying it?

Ultimately, we believe, those bills are a BV County liability, not just of the drainage districts.

It is good to know for a few reasons.

First, you always follow the paymaster. If Farm Bureau is signing the check, then you know who is really calling the shots on our behalf. We elected a board of supervisors and a county attorney to direct the policies and protect the taxpayers of this county. We did not elect the Farm Bureau or any other interest group to set our course.

Second, you always have friends when you are winning. Not so much when you are losing. We don’t know what the terms are among the slush fund donor(s), the boards of supervisors and the attorneys.

But it could be open-ended. If, say, the counties lose during a side appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, the agribusiness donors may decide to take their bets off the BV nag. Then we are left holding the bag for the rest of the federal trial. That certainly can happen.

Third, the public deserves to know all it can about how this defense is shaped since we believe the county, and its drainage districts, could be on the hook for more than $100 million in damages or, at least, could be subject to violations under the Clean Water Act.

This is of the gravest importance. The public deserves to know how its property might be leveraged by the lawsuit, and the contributions to the legal defense add context and could color the outcome.

Fourth, Iowa law requires disclosure of this information. It is illegal to hide it as the supervisors are.

There is no question that the information is being hidden. We have asked repeatedly. We do not know why this elaborate secret is being kept. If agribusiness concerns are paying the bills to protect their way of doing business, and the supervisors believe that voters agree and endorse the idea, then there is no reason to keep the truth under wraps.

Seldom have we been stonewalled like this. Obviously, the legal arrangements among the counties and the law firms are complex by design to shield the truth. It will not be easy to penetrate.

That’s why we engaged with the Iowa Freedom of Information Council for assistance. The IFOIC is comprised of media organizations (Iowa Newspaper Association, Iowa Broadcasters Association, Register Media, the Cedar Rapids Gazette and The Storm Lake Times are among the sustaining members), librarians, lawyers, educators and others. We are grateful to IFOIC Executive Director Randy Evans for stepping into this matter and pointing out in a lengthy letter to the supervisors why this information must be released.

We hope that the public officials involved will consult the law and their own political consciences and release the information. We are committed to find out through our own reportage and through all the formal channels that Iowa law affords us.

Buena Vista County must mount a vigorous defense to this lawsuit, since the supervisors have determined that a settlement with the water works is impossible. It also must account to the public on how it is handling that defense. Knowing who is paying the lawyers, and how, is crucial to understanding the supervisors’ stewardship of our public treasury.