Jan 26, 2022 - News

Iowa and Polk County officials raise alarm about missing emails

An illustration of an email vanishing.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Thousands of government emails have been reported missing or unreadable by Iowa and Polk County officials recently, according to court documents and interviews conducted by Axios.

Why it matters: The lost records have compromised investigations linked with child abuse and extortion, Des Moines attorney Roxanne Conlin and Supervisor Matt McCoy said in separate interviews Tuesday.

State of play: An Iowa Department of Human Services information technology worker testified this month that automatic encryption left thousands of its 2017 and 2018 emails unreadable to anyone.

  • It's believed to be a technology failure rather than an intentional effort to hide evidence. But it has profound impacts for cases, according to Conlin.

Driving the news: McCoy told Axios that someone deleted thousands of his county government emails linked to the extortion lawsuit against the county's other four supervisors sometime last year.

  • Polk County purposely does not archive deleted emails because "the problem is that stuff would all be available in FOIA," Anthony Jefferson, the county's chief information officer, said in response to McCoy's questions at a meeting Tuesday.
  • "It's a button push," Jefferson said, noting that archiving could be enacted immediately if the county changed its retention policy.

Between the lines: State agencies have retention policies for email but Iowa's public records law doesn't require local governments to adopt similar standards.

What they're saying: It's a flaw in the law and Jefferson's admission shows what's at stake by not fixing it, said Randy Evans, director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.

  • Ralph Marasco, Jr., an assistant Polk County attorney, told Axios Tuesday that the county complies with legal requests to retain emails that may be subject to a lawsuit.
  • He called McCoy's allegations of a deliberate email purge linked with the extortion case "nonsense."

What's next: There are currently no proposals to revise the county's email retention policy. But County Chairperson Angela Connolly told Axios it's something she's willing to consider.

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