- Associated Press - Monday, June 25, 2018

Des Moines Register. June 21, 2018

3 years and $2 million later, Burlington police shooting of mother still shrouded in secrecy

The city of Burlington has agreed to pay a $2 million settlement to the family of a woman who was fatally shot by a police officer who said he was defending himself from a dog. The officer remains employed with the Burlington Police Department.

Is that justice?

We don’t know, and neither do the people of Burlington. That’s because the court records from the civil lawsuit, including most of the video from the body camera of the officer, remain sealed and inaccessible to the public.

Autumn Steele, a 34-year-old mother of two children, was shot and killed in front of her toddler by Officer Jesse Hill in January 2015. Hill reported that he drew his gun to fend off an attacking dog, which bit him before he fired and accidentally hit Steele.

The Steele family’s lawyer said during a court hearing that video from the officer’s body camera doesn’t back up his report that he was bitten before the shooting. But the city, police department, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and Des Moines County attorney have refused to release more than 12 seconds of the video.

But it’s not just the video that authorities are trying to keep secret. Out of 78 docket entries in the case as of June 6, about 42 percent related to requests for approval to file matters in secret, orders approving such filings, or submission of motions, pleadings and exhibits under seal. That’s according to a motion filed this month by the Iowa Freedom of Information (FOI) Council, which is seeking to unseal the records. The FOI Council is made up of media organizations - including the Des Moines Register, lawyers, educators and others dedicated to open government.

“Ironically, even a motion by plaintiffs to unseal records was filed under seal, as were all related resistances and replies,” the FOI Council’s motion states.

From the ironic to the ridiculous: Docments remaining under seal include those related to motions that were argued on the record in court during a 70-minute hearing, according to the FOI Council’s motion.

And from the ridiculous to the troubling: The orders to seal the records were “routinely sought and immediately approved in text orders without presentation of evidence, a hearing or an on-the-record articulation of the facts showing either compelling need or the absence of less restrictive alternatives (such as redaction).”

In other words, neither the government defendants nor the judge has publicly stated any reason to justify the secrecy.

Randy Evans, executive director of the FOI Council, said the council expects to appear before a federal judge in coming weeks to make the case that the documents should be unsealed. “The council also is working to secure the release of the Burlington police body camera video of the shooting of Ms. Steele in the next few weeks,” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that a compromise resolution can be reached soon.”

Why should we care about this? The Steele family got paid, so what’s the problem?

First of all, the taxpayers are ultimately the ones who pay. They pay for defending the city in a lawsuit. They pay for legal settlements, either directly or through the insurance premiums that cover the city’s liability. They have a right to know exactly what sort of conduct they’re paying to defend.

Our society gives police the authority to use deadly force to protect lives - including their own - and to uphold our laws. That authority needs careful oversight by our public officials and ultimately by the public they serve.

Sometimes, a police officer does everything right and bad things happen anyway. We need to protect those officers while trying to mitigate the harm and prevent it in the future. Sometimes, though, terrible mistakes are covered up to minimize liability. People who are abusing our trust need to be fired or voted out of office, but how will we know the difference if those same officials are allowed to hide evidence of their conduct?

“There are few activities government is involved in that raise more questions from the public than law officers killing an unarmed person,” Evans said. “Video like that recorded when Autumn Steele was shot provides the public with a way to evaluate the actions that occurred moments before the tragedy and in the immediate aftermath.”

Our court system makes decisions that affect every aspect of our lives: our freedom, our property and our fundamental rights as humans. But how can we have confidence in those decisions if all of the arguments and evidence are shrouded in secrecy?

This is why journalists fight for open meetings, open records and transparency in government decisions. This is why all Iowans should demand nothing less.Dubuque Telegraph Herald. June, 15, 2018

Burlington secrecy not in the public’s interest

It’s our deeply and long-held opinion that the public’s interest is best served when the public’s business is accessible to the public.

There are few, if any, issues of greater public interest than community safety and the conduct of its law enforcement officers. Thus, we’ve been more than troubled - outraged, actually - by government’s obsession the past 3½ years to keep the public in the dark over what we and other government-transparency advocates refer to as “the Burlington case.”

To briefly review: On Jan. 6, 2015, Burlington police officer Jesse Hill, responding to a call of a domestic disturbance at a residence, accidentally shot and killed one of the residents, 34-year-old Autumn Steele. The intended target was the family dog, which aggressively confronted the officer and might or might not have bitten him.

What the public knows about this incident is limited, even though video of the tragic event was captured by the officer’s body-worn camera. Even after an investigation ended with the officer cleared of any criminal charges, the City of Burlington and state Division of Criminal Investigation have steadfastly fought to keep secret the documents in the case, including the video. That secrecy is currently the subject of an open-records complaint before the Iowa Public Information Board.

A shaky 12-second clip is all the video authorities have made public. Attorneys’ recent statements in a federal wrongful-death lawsuit indicate that there are inconsistencies among official reports and what is seen in the full video.

Last week, when attorneys for Burlington and the Steele estate disclosed that they had reached an agreement on an out-of-court settlement in the federal suit, details of the agreement, including the public dollars that would be involved, weren’t disclosed. Until everything is finalized, that is not surprising.

What was surprising is the lengths to which government officials have been trying to keep most details of the incident blocked from the public. Not quite half the many motions and legal briefs in the federal case have been sealed from public view.

The Iowa Freedom of Information Council, of which the Telegraph Herald parent company Woodward Communications, Inc., is a charter member, has asked to intervene in the federal lawsuit. With the Steele family’s consent, the organization seeks to argue for the documents to be unsealed.

In light of the legitimate and extreme public interest and concern when a law enforcement officer fires a weapon, as well as the expenditure of taxpayer dollars in the aftermath, the public should know what is going on. Dubious defenses and sealed documents to maintain secrecy should not be permitted.

The Burlington documents, including the video, should be made public.


Fort Dodge Messenger. June 20, 2018

Let’s remember our history

Marking Historic Highway 20 is a worthy endeavor

For more than a half century residents of this part of Iowa have worked hard to promote the conversion of U.S. Highway 20 into a four-lane thoroughfare that spans the Hawkeye State from Dubuque to Sioux City. That goals has almost been achieved. The last few miles should be finished before 2018 ends.

The economic importance of four-laning this highway to the prosperity of northern Iowa in the years ahead has been the focus for many years. We should not overlook, however, the historic significance of Highway 20. Making sure that the route taken by the two-lane version of the roadway is not forgotten is the goal of the Historic U.S. Route 20 Association. That Massachusetts-based nonprofit group is seeking appropriate signage along the highway’s original route.

As many Iowans will remember, the two-lane road passed through the heart of many Iowa towns. One goal of marking the historic path the highway followed is to encourage tourists and other travelers to take the time to learn more about those communities.

“That will get our leisure travelers going back into those small communities and experiencing those communities that are along the route,” Kerrie Kuiper, executive director of the Fort Dodge Convention and Visitors Bureau, said. “We’re excited about the four-lane 20. That opens up some really amazing opportunities to bring people to the area, but when you want to see the actual small communities, experience them, learn their character and experience the history of them, you really need to get off the interstate system.”

Before the Iowa Department of Transportation can officially designate Highway 20’s old route as historic, the communities and counties through which it passes must grant their approval. The Fort Dodge City Council and the Webster County Board of Supervisors have recently done just that. Getting the necessary approvals elsewhere is nearly complete so meeting that requirement should soon be accomplished.

Here are a few facts about Historic U.S. Highway 20:

. The official birth of the U.S. Highway System was Nov. 11, 1926.

. It is currently the longest U.S. Highway at 3,365 miles.

. It begins in Boston, Massachusetts, and ends in Newport, Oregon.

. The highway passes through 12 states.

The Messenger supports this worthy project. We applaud the Fort Dodge City Council and Webster County Board of Supervisors for lending their support to this important historical awareness project.


Dubuque Telegraph Herald. June 20, 2018

No, you can’t light that fuse in Dubuque

Iowa is in its second summer season permitting the sale of consumer fireworks, and early indications are that last year’s problems will be magnified in 2018.

Recall that last year the Republican-controlled Legislature and then-Gov. Terry Branstad enacted a law lifting the statewide ban on consumer fireworks sales and use. One argument was that people are shooting off fireworks anyway, so let’s have the sales tax and licensing revenue stay in the state.

That might be good news for government coffers, but it’s bad news for people who appreciate a good night’s sleep, veterans and others dealing with post-traumatic stress disorders, and pets that don’t handle loud noises well.

The new state law included a couple of important provisions that are needed but hardly heeded.

One specifies the dates and hours when consumer fireworks may be discharged. No, it is not anytime one pleases. The dates are June 1-July 8 and the hours are 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and July 4 only, and 9 a.m.-10 p.m. all other days.

Another provision allows municipalities to prohibit or limit the use of consumer fireworks. Dubuque prohibits their use all the time.

In a recent Facebook post, Dubuque Police Chief Mark Dalsing explained why he wished Iowa had left well enough alone. For starters, there were the increased fireworks-related casualties and citizens’ confusion about when they can or can’t use fireworks. More importantly, he said he “knew that once the door was slightly opened with the new fireworks law, it would be slammed wide open by people using fireworks without regard for others.”

Nailed it. From 2012 to 2016, the final years of the statewide prohibition, Dubuque police averaged 181 fireworks complaints, Dalsing said. Remember, that was the average for an entire year when fireworks were banned. In 2017, when consumer fireworks sales were legalized but still prohibited in Dubuque, police in one stretch handled 193 complaints - just in the first four days of July.

“I suspected the majority of citizens would obey the law and not use them, or at the very least, be discreet and conservative in their use,” Dalsing wrote. “But I also suspected that there would be people who took it to extremes in the other direction, and viewed the now opened door as an invitation to blast fireworks at 4 a.m. any time of year they wanted. My suspicions came true. It isn’t just a Dubuque issue, either.”

There’s Davenport, for example. That city prohibits the use of consumer fireworks except for two days, July 3-4. How’s that working out down there? Davenport police last year received 13 fireworks complaints in the first 10 days of June. Over the same period this year, KWQC reports, complaints more than tripled - to 44. And that was with Independence Day still some 3½ weeks away.

In Iowa City, local police fielded 521 noise complaints over fireworks last summer, the first under the new law, The Daily Iowan reported. That’s a seven-fold increase over the final two summers that consumer fireworks were still banned statewide.

And again, these are just police calls. There is no simple way to calculate the negative impact on people with PTSD, on pets and on annoyed neighbors who don’t call the cops.

As we’ve noted here previously, Iowa got along just fine for some 80 years without the legal sale and use of consumer fireworks. We sure hope that legislators’ predicted windfall for governments is materializing, to make all these problems “worth it.”

Dalsing noted, “I am especially concerned for people with PTSD, especially my heroes, the veterans who defended this country, who are being traumatized because some toolbags are getting their jollies blowing up beer cans.”

Lest you think our police chief is just a wet blanket when it comes to fireworks, he emphasizes in his Facebook essay that he enjoys big fireworks shows, such as Dubuque’s extravaganza each July 3, and he recounted many of the fireworks brands he enjoyed shooting off as a kid. It was fun.

However, he adds, “What isn’t fun is drunken goobers shooting bottle-rockets out of their kiesters when you’re trying to sleep.”

We’re glad to see that the chief is giving everyone fair warning about warnings. Last year’s warning for a fireworks violation should be this year’s citation - which comes with a minimum $250 fine.

Dalsing states it better than we could, so we’ll let the chief have the last word:

“Please keep your neighbors in mind, but remember even limited use (in Dubuque) is still a violation of the law and you can be charged. And for those of you that will completely disregard the law and blast Spleen Splitters at 4 a.m., don’t complain when the officer hands you a $250 ticket (or possibly gives you a place to sleep for the night because you’re drunk and naked and blowing up Gizzard Grazers in the middle of the street).”


Des Moines Register. June 21, 2018

Iowa needs answers on Medicaid savings, not a Kansas-style shell game

Iowa’s new Medicaid director is turning out to be as much of a disappointment in this state as he was in Kansas.

Mike Randol again this month failed to adequately explain how his office arrived at a $141 million estimate of annual savings from Iowa’s privatization of Medicaid. He was also unable or unwilling to explain to a human services council why that estimate was triple the one his office previously released. Then he scooted out of the conference room, refusing to take questions from reporters.

Information about the financial impact of privatization is important because Gov. Terry Branstad promised $232 million in savings when he handed over Medicaid management to three for-profit companies in 2016. While Iowans have heard many anecdotes about the negative consequences on low-income patients and health providers, we know essentially nothing about how taxpayers have fared.

With Randol showing little interest in transparency, Iowa’s state auditor has agreed to look into the see-sawing estimates of how much Iowa taxpayers may or may not be saving.

State Auditor Mary Mosiman deserves credit for being willing to wade into this mess, yet she is likely not the right person for the job. She is elected. She is a Republican.

She has given no reason to imagine that she would put partisanship ahead of impartial evaluation. But fair or not, Iowans may not trust her findings. Besides, her office may not be equipped to provide what’s needed here, which is more than an audit. Iowans deserve a comprehensive program review, which should extend beyond Medicaid spending.

The best government entity for this complicated and time-consuming task is the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, which can conduct such a review with approval from legislators. With the Legislature out of session, the Legislative Council has power to authorize the review.

According to Iowa Code 2A.7, lawmakers “shall independently and intensively review and oversee the performance of state agencies in the operation of state programs to evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of the state programs and to consider alternatives which may improve the benefits of such programs or may reduce their costs to the citizens of the state.”

Iowa lawmakers apparently missed this responsibility specified in Iowa Code. They have done little to ensure oversight of privatized Medicaid.

So these elected officials should direct LSA to conduct an evaluation and provide additional resources to LSA if needed. LSA should then model its review after one conducted by the auditing arm of the Kansas Legislature known as the Legislative Post Audit (LPA).

Kansas privatized Medicaid in 2013, contracting with three managed care organizations (MCOs) and paying them a per-member-per-month rate for administering the health insurance program. Iowa’s privatization is modeled after so-called KanCare, which has been such a disaster in our neighboring state that the federal government denied the state’s request to renew the program, and its future is uncertain.

In April 2017, Kansas legislators directed their independent auditors to find out whether KanCare is working. The work took a year and included reviewing nearly 200 million Medicaid records before LPA released its report in April 2018.

The findings are not encouraging. Not for Kansas. And not for Iowa. These findings include:

State payments to MCOs were about $400 million more than what the private insurers paid in claims in 2015 and again in 2016. The for-profit companies collected $800 million more in public money over two years than they spent on health care for Kansans.

State payments to the insurers grew from $2.1 billion in 2013 to $3 billion in 2016. “Our model results showed that the implementation of KanCare did not appear to have helped contain Medicaid claims costs,” according to the report.

After KanCare was implemented, use of nursing home care increased by 16 percent.

There was little to no effect on inpatient care “implying (managed care’s) emphasis on preventative care did not reduce beneficiaries’ time in a hospital,” according to the report.

The Kansas auditors struggled to evaluate some aspects of privatized Medicaid due to a lack of information and the failure of the state to adequately oversee the MCOs. For example, auditors said they could not evaluate whether there were enough doctors and other medical providers participating because the data insurance companies submitted to the state “had duplicative, missing and outdated provider information.”

Kansas has no system to track whether medical care claims are accurate. Oversight of this is important because the reimbursements the state pays insurers are based in part on how much they’ve paid in claims. One insurer wrongly included interest paid to providers, which “may have inappropriately inflated” the payments it received from the state, according to the report.

Every Iowa policymaker, including Gov. Kim Reynolds, should read the Kansas report. It offers an unbiased, comprehensive look at problems with privatization in Kansas that Iowa will likely experience if this state does not change course.

And the report may help explain why Iowa’s current Medicaid director, who helped create the mess in Kansas, is unwilling to provide detailed information and answer questions about what is going on here.

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