AP Exclusive: Iowa regulator used state email for legal work

By RYAN J. FOLEY Markets Associated Press

A powerful Iowa regulator used her government email to conduct private business for her personal law practice and claimed sick leave on a day when she attended a client's court hearing, which are both apparent violations of state rules.

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Documents obtained by The Associated Press under the open records law reveal that Iowa Utilities Board chairwoman Geri Huser used her state account this year to send messages to employees of her law firm, violating state email rules and jeopardizing confidential legal information. They also show she claimed paid sick leave Feb. 6, even though she participated in a court hearing for a legal client that afternoon.

The AP disclosed in March that Huser has operated a busy estate law practice while holding a $128,900-per year state job that has power over utilities, their customers and energy policy. Her practice is unprecedented for the many attorneys who have served on the board, including new member Dick Lozier, who recently said he was leaving his firm. Huser's firm has been awarded $182,000 in fees for cases she's handled during her two-year tenure as chairwoman, despite a law requiring the three board members to devote their "whole time" to state business.

After a delay prompted by the AP's findings, the Iowa Senate voted 44-4 last month to confirm Huser for a second two-year term as chairwoman. Huser told senators that she was working full-time and has appropriately used flexible scheduling and vacation time to meet any weekday obligations. Gov. Terry Branstad also came to his appointee's defense, praising Huser's leadership and noting that prior members have driven taxis or farmed on the side.

But records show Huser has struggled to keep the two jobs separate, with her state calendar also listing her legal appointments.

Huser sent six messages in February and March from her state account to employees of Skinner Law Office, including assigning lists of legal tasks to complete. Board spokesman Don Tormey said Huser was using new software on her private computer to save and send attachments, and it defaulted to her state account without her knowledge when she sent them. He said the practice stopped when it was discovered around March 20.

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The state employee handbook says email "must be for state government-related activities and not for personal business" and that information transmitted through state computers belongs to the government.

Board general counsel David Lynch rejected the AP's request for the messages and attachments Huser sent to her firm, claiming they don't belong to the board and contain privileged and confidential information. The messages were discovered during a search of Huser's email by state information technology employees. Depending on their content, they may indicate a violation of the rules of professional conduct for Iowa attorneys, which require lawyers to keep sensitive client information confidential and take precautions to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of it.

Iowa rules say sick leave is only intended for reasons such as illness and medical appointments. Records show Huser appeared for a Feb. 6 afternoon hearing in Nevada, Iowa, where she represented the brother of an incapacitated man who was seeking to become his sibling's temporary guardian. On her timesheet, Huser claimed eight hours of sick leave.

Huser didn't respond to an interview request and her state-issued cell phone rang unanswered Thursday. Tormey didn't respond to questions about Huser's sick leave.

Records show that Huser missed all or part of at least 65 days due to vacation or sick leave in her first 22 months as chairwoman — about 15 percent of normal workdays. That doesn't count a half-dozen more in which she attended court hearings but didn't claim leave. Timesheets show Huser often puts in extra time on nights or weekends to make up for days that are cut short.

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Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rjfoley