More secrets surrounding Iowa State Patrol

Reporting by the Associated Press’ Ryan Foley has once again brought public attention to the troubling secrecy within the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

The latest example is the dismissal of an Iowa State Patrol supervisor, Sgt. Michael Haugen of Forest City.

Foley reported that Haugen was placed on paid leave on March 25 and then was fired on May 3 amid disciplinary and criminal investigations into misconduct.

Officials of the State Patrol and its parent agency, the Department of Public Safety, have refused to explain the nature of Haugen’s alleged misconduct.

Indeed, Public Safety Commissioner Roxann Ryan went so far as sending out an email to all employees ordering them to refrain from discussing personnel matters or investigations.

Here’s Foley’s latest report on Haugen, which was filed on June 6: Trooper.Crash

Here’s Foley’s initial report on the matter, which was published June 2: Trooper.Initial

The Des Moines Register opinion pages awarded state officials a “thistle” for their lack of public transparency over Haugen and his actions. Here’s the thistle: Trooper.Thistle

The Haugen case isn’t the first time the State Patrol and Department of Public Safety have taken unusual steps to avoid disclosure of information that puts the agencies in a negative light.

In December 2015, the Associated Press’ Foley reported that a State Patrol trooper caused “visible injury” with his rifle to a suspected drunken driver after the motorist was taken into custody in June 2015 following a chase in Plymouth County.

For months after the incident, State Patrol officials refused to identify the trooper. They also refused to explain how the trooper injured the motorist.

It was not until the Iowa Freedom of Information Council complained in a letter to the public safety commissioner and State Patrol Chief Michael Van Berkum, and The Des Moines Register editorialized on the secrecy, that the trooper’s name, Jeremy Probasco, was released.

But Public Safety Commissioner Ryan has continued to refuse to explain how the driver’s injuries occurred. She has cited her obligation to ensure that the driver receives a fair trial on the charges that were filed against him. That trial has been postponed several times.

In a letter to the Iowa Freedom of Information Council in January, Commissioner Ryan suggested that the squad car video of the arrest and other details about Trooper Probasco’s actions could remain confidential forever.

She wrote in her letter, “The information necessarily would involve either the investigative information (which is not an open record, other than the basic facts and circumstances of the case) or confidential personnel matters.”

Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said the efforts by state officials to conceal details of incidents in which state troopers’ actions are questioned run counter to good government.

“There have been numerous events across the nation in which the actions of law officers have been called into question,” Evans said in a statement. “Law enforcement agencies are not going to be able to rebuild the public’s trust in officers if officials continue to shroud in secrecy cases in which the behavior of officers is questioned.”

Evans continued: “Gov. Terry Branstad has pledged to make his administration the most open in state history. The cases involving the State Patrol’s Sgt. Michael Haugen and Trooper Jeremy Probasco are ideal opportunities for the governor to demonstrate through his actions that he is serious about his commitment to making state government more transparent.

“The governor should direct officials of the Department of Public Safety to explain to the people of Iowa what Sgt. Haugen did to warrant his termination from the State Patrol and what Trooper Probasco did to cause visible injuries to a driver after the man was arrested.”

Evans added: “The governor often talks about how he wants to be more forthcoming about personnel matters but how his hands are tied because of the potential for lawsuits by state employee unions. That concern about potential litigation didn’t stop the governor from cutting the pay of former Iowa Worker Compensation Commissioner Christopher Godfrey. And at last count, the state has spent more than $900,000 defending the governor over the Godfrey pay cut.”