Iowa prosecutor blocks release of files in sex-assault investigation

Monday, January 7, 2008

IOWA CITY, Iowa — A county prosecutor investigating a reported sexual assault on the University of Iowa campus is blocking the release of documents about the probe.

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness says she has instructed Iowa officials to ignore a public-records request for copies of subpoenas served on the university related to a sexual-assault investigation that involves members of the Hawkeye football team.

Lyness also acknowledges that there is no case law to support what effectively amounts to a gag order imposed on administrators, faculty and staff at the 30,000-student university.

She says she is treating her investigation “like grand jury proceedings.”

Two open-records advocates questioned her actions, and one Iowa newspaper has sued the university over records that apparently fall under Lyness’ gag order.

The public records in dispute include copies of subpoenas served on the university related to the alleged sexual assault, which reportedly took place Oct. 14 but wasn’t reported to any law enforcement agency until Nov. 7. The Des Moines Register has filed an information request for those documents.

State law requires public officials to provide a response to a request for public records within 20 calendar days, but the school has refused to respond in writing to the request, and Director of University Relations Steve Parrott, who typically provides the public with such information, has declined to comment.

Lyness, who was elected in 2006, said a court order issued by a district judge forbids officials from acknowledging that they received the subpoenas. She has also declined to provide a copy of the order or identify the judge who issued it.

On Jan. 4, the Iowa City Press-Citizen filed a lawsuit seeking access to records related to the sexual-assault investigation. The Press-Citizen is seeking records of reported rapes or sexual assaults on campus in October, correspondence between athletic department officials and student services officials regarding any reported or attempted sexual assaults, and residence hall records related to sexual assaults in October.

Lyness said she had received advice from the Iowa attorney general’s office that supported her taking broad measures to restrict information about the case.

“We treat this like grand jury proceedings, which are confidential,” Lyness said. “Like in a lot of Iowa cases, there is not specific case law on it, but instead it is our position that this would be interpreted like a grand jury investigation and pretty strictly. There would be orders not to disclose anything.”

Bob Brammer, a spokesman for the Iowa attorney general’s office, declined to comment on remarks by Lyness. But Brammer said county prosecutors often consult with the attorney general’s office on criminal procedure matters.

Meanwhile, two open-government experts question whether Lyness has the authority to keep the school from responding to the request for records.

Michael Giudicessi, a Des Moines lawyer who has represented the Register in freedom-of-information cases, told the newspaper for a story yesterday that Lyness’ refusal to provide a copy of the court order makes it difficult “to know just what the judge has said.”

He also noted that any order directing that a subpoena be sealed is binding for court officials but not the recipient of the subpoena.

“I don’t see how a third party like the university can be bound to comply with an order directed to the clerk’s office,” he said.

Kathleen Richardson, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, also said Lyness’ order seemed too broad.

“It seems to me that it is a stretch to compare the obtaining of documents with a subpoena to a grand-jury proceeding,” Richardson was quoted by the Register as saying.“I see it as a pretty broad umbrella that she is trying to use to shield the disclosure of documents.”

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