UNITED STATES NEWS

Iowa auditor says new law will restrict his office’s access to information

Jun 30, 2023, 10:00 PM

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa’s auditor may face new challenges in his quest to track taxpayer dollars after a new law takes effect Saturday that allows state agencies to deny his office access to information and bars him from making an appeal in court.

State Auditor Rob Sand, the only Democrat in statewide office, said the law advanced by Republican lawmakers is a politically motivated attack on accountability. The law could stifle Sand, who described his office as “assertive.”

“Bottom line on that is, we uncovered a record amount of waste, fraud and abuse in my first term. That’s where it came from,” Sand said in an interview with The Associated Press. “They don’t want accountability.”

But supporters of the Iowa law emphasize the changes are meant to protect Iowans’ privacy and that the risk to the auditor’s work is low.

Going forward, a state agency is not allowed to provide the state auditor’s office access to confidential information, such as medical or school records, unless it is deemed necessary to the auditor’s responsibilities. The auditor’s office, as usual, must maintain confidentiality of those records.

That could mean business as usual — as Republican lawmakers suggest — if the auditor is doing his job as outlined in generally accepted federal audit standards. Or, it could mean agencies would more often question a request and withhold information from his office.

If a dispute arises, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds is empowered to appoint a tiebreaker vote to an arbitration panel, on which Sand and the agency involved each will have a representative. That gives two of the three voices on the panel, whose decision is final, to Reynolds’ administration.

The bill made its way through a Republican-dominated statehouse and passed easily without support from Democrats, who argued it has the potential to give the state’s Republican leadership more power to quiet political rivals and hide corruption.

Uneven political power in Republican-controlled state governments has given way to some more extreme examples of retribution in recent months, including the removal of a Democratic transgender lawmaker from the Montana House floor.

Iowa Republican State Senator Mike Bousselot said previous state Supreme Court rulings in cases between Sand’s office and state agencies raised questions about the role of the auditor’s office.

“Why should the Auditor have unfettered access to Iowans’ medical records, financial aid, school records and more?” Bousselot wrote in an email. “It is irrational and potentially dangerous for the Auditor to seek irrelevant information in an audit.”

“This bill gives Iowans additional privacy protections while allowing the Auditor to continue accessing information relevant to the purpose of the audit,” he added.

When the legislation surfaced, state and national auditing and accounting organizations joined with Sand to convey concerns that the law will prevent independent and complete oversight. Those concerns have since made their way to a federal agency responsible for auditing standards, according to John Geragosian, past president of the National State Auditors Association.

A spokesperson at the Government Accountability Office pointed to a March letter clarifying the federal auditing standards but offered no additional comments.

The tension in Iowa is not entirely unique. Auditors in other states have experienced pushback, even from members of their party.

In North Dakota, second-term State Auditor Josh Gallion and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature have clashed over how he publicizes critical audit findings and what fees his office has charged for local governments’ audits. This spring, lawmakers budgeted $500,000 for an audit of the auditor’s office.

Former Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat, said Republican lawmakers were regularly “touting” his audits of the Democratic governor’s administration. Then, in 2019, Republican lawmakers pushed through a cut to his office’s budget by 10% just months after he announced a run for U.S. Congress.

“I will tell you that that is the most fascinating coincidence,” DePasquale said. “I thought it was gutter politics, to be blunt.”

In Iowa, Sand emphasized his record of avoiding partisan politics, asserting he employs senior staff from both sides of the aisle, has provided opportunities for agencies to undo errors and regularly defends the Republican administration’s actions.

“I like this job,” Sand said, but admitted the law could “end up making this office less impactful.”

“I’m hard pressed to see how it couldn’t have an impact,” Sand said, suggesting it will become easier for a state agency to reject his requests. “I think the only impact that it could have would be negative for the public and negative for this office’s ability to do its work.”

___

Associated Press reporter Jack Dura in Bismarck, North Dakota, and Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, contributed.

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Iowa auditor says new law will restrict his office’s access to information