Iowa, Sunshine Week

The Daily Nonpareil (Council Bluffs,Iowa)
Guest Opinion: Public records and you
March 20, 2014

This is the week that newspapers across the country write stories about public records, the difficulty they have in getting the records from various agencies and the proposed legislation that hinders or opens up access to public records. It is called Sunshine Week and it is celebrated this year from March 16-22, 2014.

There is a very good reason newspapers are interested in public records. Public records are the backbone for many stories. Journalists use them frequently. If you look closely at newspaper articles and read between the lines you will see how much of the information was generated – through public records. Here are some examples you’ve probably seen: “Police records indicate”, he was “sued in County Court”, in a “mug shot provided by the Sheriff’s office,” “was convicted.” The basis for all these examples are public records.

How does this apply to you? Public records may be beneficial to you personally.

If you are a young lady, you may think twice about seeing a psychiatrist who has been disciplined for sexual misconduct. If you are a recovering alcoholic you may be reluctant to see a doctor who has been disciplined for substance abuse. If you are a mother you may shy away from taking your child to a MD who has a record of misprescribing drugs to children. You may be a family member who just wants to help a loved one by checking out their prospective health care provider.

These are just examples of public records that could be obtained in regard to health care providers. Other examples where public records could be obtained are lawsuits, criminal records, marriage and divorce records, property records and records of what your local city officials are up to at City Hall. “Public records” are generally defined across the country as records regardless of their physical form (so e-mail would be included) made or received in connection with the transaction of official business by any government agency.

You’ve heard of Freedom of Information. That is the name for the federal law that applies to public records. But each state has their own public records law, many of which do not go by the name “Freedom of Information”. Therefore, you are safe to just use the term “Public Records Request” when dealing with your state’s government officials.

So, using the public records law in your state you can find out for yourself if your doctor meets your requirements. It’s a lot simpler than you may think.

Go to your state’s board of medicine. Ask them if the doctor has ever been disciplined and if so, ask them to provide you a copy of the records.

Contact your local city or town police agency. Ask them for any arrest reports OR any other type of reports, such as incident reports. (Those may contain records that are not included in an arrest report.)

Contact your county sheriff – in addition to their own law enforcement, the sheriff usually provides the jail facilities to incarcerate those arrested by your local police departments. So ask them for applicable records, including mug shots.

Go to your county clerk of court and ask them if your prospective doctor has any criminal records or lawsuits filed against him. If so, you might want to pick up a copy of the lawsuits, at least the initial complaint filed, and also a record that shows what happened in the case. A judgment against the doctor, a settlement? Was the lawsuit dropped?

Most public agencies are polite and helpful and follow the law and will give you your public records upon request. Some agencies have attorneys guarding the henhouse who are reluctant to hand over records! Luckily, this is rare, so just persist and you will eventually obtain the public records you seek.

Public records are not just for journalists and their stories. They are PUBLIC RECORDS. That means they belong to you!

Although most of the examples I’ve given are for doctors, you can modify this just a bit by finding the agency that licenses the professional you are searching for records on – plumbers, barbers, teachers, day care facilities, etc.

Keep in mind, you may be charged a nominal fee for these records. But your peace of mind is worth it.

Good luck in your search for public records.

Happy Sunshine Week!

– Ken Kramer is a public records researcher and freelance investigative journalist with 20 years experience dealing with government agencies at the local, state and federal level.