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Iowa ombudsman accuses AG’s office of interference

Sep 03, 2013

DES MOINES (AP) — Iowa’s ombudsman says Attorney General Tom Miller’s staff has been trying to interfere with her office’s authority to investigate complaints about state and local governments.

Ruth Cooperrider told The Des Moines Register that state attorneys have taken steps that “strike at the heart of our authority.” She said recent decisions by the attorney general could affect her office’s inquiries into whistle-blower complaints.

“People should feel free to share information without someone from the attorney general’s office sitting right next to them,” she said.

Miller’s spokesman, Geoff Greenwood, said some of Cooperrider’s concerns were “a reach.” He said his office was unable to reach her late Friday to discuss the concerns.

The ombudsman’s office has the legal powers to investigate serious disputes and make recommendations on improving how government works. It often acts as an informal mediator between citizens and government workers, but it can subpoena witnesses, conduct private hearings and keep communications confidential.

However, investigators within the office are not allowed to look into union or merit-system workers’ grievances with their state government bosses.

The attorney general’s office represents Iowans through consumer protection and crime-fighting efforts. They also legally represent the state and its agencies against allegations of wrongdoing.

Deputy Attorney General Julie Pottorff said whistle-blowers can go to the ombudsman’s office to air their concerns without the attorney general being involved.

The newspaper reported that Miller and Pottorff decided last year that the ombudsman’s office and the new Public Information Board need a court order to access tapes of closed-session discussions of public boards.

Cooperrider said it’s put a major hurdle into investigating violations of open meetings and records law. She questioned how effective the Public Information Board can be.

Cooperrider also said the attorney general’s position on a recent case — an insistence on being present during ombudsman interviews of former and current state workers — could have a chilling effect on other cases where employees do not want the attorney general’s office present for their testimony.

“Historically, our position has been that it is up to the witness to decide whether to have counsel and who the counsel is,” she said.

Greenwood said the ombudsman’s counsel “misapplied” past court decisions in interpreting the law. He said the same approach for interviews would not apply to whistle-blower cases.

Cooperrider also said it’s been difficult to obtain personnel files from the Department of Administrative Services based on counsel from the attorney general’s office. In one case, she was forced to use subpoena power to demand the records.

Greenwood would not comment on the case because he said the attorney general’s advice to state agencies is protected and confidential. He added, “the ombudsman has not raised the issue with our office.”

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