- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2017

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Iowa’s licensing boards operate in a culture of secrecy that has made them unaccountable to citizens they are supposed to protect from incompetent and unscrupulous professionals, according to a state report issued Monday.

The secrecy fuels “lackadaisical investigations, apathetic board members, poor documentation of deliberations, and questionable outcomes” to complaints, the Office of Ombudsman concluded after a lengthy investigation.

The ombudsman, an independent agency that investigates complaints against state and local governments, examined the system of 36 boards responsible for regulating trained workers, from doctors to social workers to barbers.

The boards, which set standards for credentials and ethics governing their professions, investigate complaints and can discipline or even revoke licenses of those who commit misconduct. But complaint files and reports are considered confidential under Iowa law, in part to protect the reputations of licensees who are falsely accused of wrongdoing.

Investigators with the ombudsman's office found that the boards often fail to adequately investigate allegations lodged against professionals before voting in closed-session meetings to dismiss them.

The boards then fail to provide their findings or any rationale for their decisions to complainants, many of whom do not accept the outcomes. Some boards even stopped issuing letters to complainants to inform them their cases were closed, with one saying they took time to write and would only anger the recipients.

“For years, no one has been in a position to evaluate their work. In short, it has been a system unaccountable,” the report says. “This culture of secrecy breeds public distrust, resentment and a lack of confidence in a system intended to assure the public that professionals are being held to a high standard.”

The boards should do more to document their decisions and explain them to complainants, the report says, praising the Attorney Disciplinary Board for doing just that.

The boards are comprised mostly of industry professionals but typically have some public representatives. Members are appointed by the governor. While having expertise is necessary to be effective, “it also exposes boards to public accusations of self-dealing or protectionism when the target of a complaint is not disciplined,” the report said.

Iowa lawmakers were considering a bill that would have removed licensing requirements from several professions, including those for social workers, funeral directors and mental health counselors, and replace them with registration systems. The bill failed in a committee Monday, pleasing some who noted it didn’t address the secrecy criticized in the report and could have further weakened oversight.

The ombudsman’s investigation was made possible by a 2015 law change that gave the office access to recordings and minutes from closed meetings where complaints are discussed. Investigators had been blocked from obtaining those records by the attorney general's office, which argued the ombudsman couldn’t access them without a court order.

Investigators used the law to obtain files from cases involving four boards and were alarmed by what they found. During two closed meetings, board members made “derogatory, inappropriate, and quite frankly, appalling” remarks that suggested bias against complainants and certain licensees, the report said.

Two boards failed to adequately address conflicts of interest, with one member failing to recuse herself in a case against a licensee she worked for.

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