- Associated Press - Friday, October 31, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration waited to tell the public for weeks about a second construction problem at the long-delayed new Iowa State Penitentiary, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

The emails obtained through the open records law show that Branstad aides recognized the yet-to-open $165.5 million maximum-security prison in Fort Madison as a potential issue as the governor sought re-election. Branstad has been waging an all-out effort to win Lee County, a Democratic-leaning county where the prison’s delayed opening has frustrated workers, in Tuesday’s election. It is one of two counties he hasn’t carried during his five previous victories.

In July, the Department of Corrections created a timeline for the governor’s office showing that contractors were selected and the first problem - the improper design of the geothermal heating and cooling system - happened in 2010 under Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, according to the emails. That problem delayed plans to close the 175-year-old Iowa State Penitentiary last spring and move the inmates to the new prison a mile away, since workers spent months installing a new system.

Democratic lawmakers have criticized the administration’s handling of the project. Anticipating questions, Branstad’s aides prepared talking points that said the “previous administration made the fiscal commitment and contracts” for construction, and that “the project has nearly reached completion.”

Workers discovered another problem July 29, when the new prison’s smoke control system failed to evacuate air from housing units during a test. This meant the prison wasn’t up to state building code and could be hazardous during a fire.

Branstad’s communications director, Jimmy Centers, arranged to get a Sept. 3 briefing from Department of Corrections Director John Baldwin and spokesman Fred Scaletta, one day after The Des Moines Register asked whether there were additional problems that would further delay the prison’s opening. Centers said Thursday that he learned then about ongoing testing of the smoke system.

Scaletta denied additional delays then, but his department and the Department of Administrative Services later drafted a Sept. 15 news release named, “ISP-Move Delayed.” It said that tests showed “the evacuation of smoke-filled air may not meet state standards” and that “an additional delay may be necessary” before inmates could transfer.

The release wasn’t sent because the administration didn’t know for certain whether the problem would cause a delay and “we didn’t want to put out misleading information,” Centers said Thursday.

Scaletta refused to confirm or deny problems with the smoke system when asked by the AP in September and October. Instead, he helped draft a different release approved by Centers and sent Oct. 8 titled, “Iowa State Penitentiary Transition Update.” The release said that the system failed the July test, but “was successful” during a Sept. 25 test and that the upgrade to the geothermal system was complete.

The release said a timeframe for the move hasn’t been set, and that “the DOC continues to work with state officials and contractors to discuss a date for occupancy,” the release said.

Centers said it was meant to inform the public “that there would in fact be a delay in the move to the new ISP,” but the word “delay” was not in the release. Multiple media outlets reported the problems were nearly fixed and the prisoners may be transferred soon.

Danny Homan, president of a union that represents prison employees, said politics were driving the way information has been released and tightly controlled.

“This is all about making Terry look good,” Homan said. Centers said that was “absolutely not” the case.

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