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Iowa moves to shield governor’s license plate data

IOWA CITY (AP) — After initially agreeing to release data about police inquiries on Gov. Terry Branstad’s state license plate, the Iowa Department of Public Safety has decided it will shield the information from the public.

The department said last month it would search for and release information showing how many times the 511SOS license plate was run through police databases, when it was done and by which agencies. This came after a high-ranking investigator alleged the governor’s vehicle has routinely been allowed to speed.

The data would indicate whether Branstad’s state-assigned Chevy Tahoe has faced other police stops, pursuits or inquiries in the past 2 ½ years, beyond the April 26 incident in which the trooper driving Branstad was clocked driving 84 mph on a state highway. It would also show whether the vehicle was caught speeding or running red lights in cities that operate traffic cameras, but avoided citations because of its special undercover designation.

The department abruptly changed course Friday, saying the information must be kept confidential and could end Iowa’s access to national law enforcement databases if released, which would threaten public safety.

Former Division of Criminal Investigation special agent Larry Hedlund told superiors that the April 26 pursuit endangered public safety and that speeding was common practice for troopers driving the governor. Hedlund was placed on leave days later, and fired last month.

He filed a lawsuit last week alleging that he was wrongly terminated for reporting the incident, which led to a $181 ticket and disciplinary action against the driver, trooper Steve Lawrence, after it became public last month. State officials deny retaliation, saying Hedlund was fired was for unrelated rule violations.

The pursuit revealed that the license plate for Branstad’s Tahoe — and those of 3,200 other local, state and federal vehicles — was kept out of police databases as a security measure. Cities with speed and red light cameras say they do not issue tickets to such vehicles because identifying them would be too time-consuming.

To look into Hedlund’s allegation of routine speeding by Branstad’s detail, The Associated Press asked DPS under the public records law to release information for inquiries of the governor’s plate back to January 2011.

Lt. Rob Hansen, DPS public information bureau director, said July 26 it would take more than seven hours for an employee to gather the information at a cost of roughly $200, a fee the AP agreed to cover. The department required a $19 payment to process the request, which was cashed last week and is now being refunded.

But on Friday, Hansen told AP that he was mistaken in determining the information was public and that the department now believed it’s confidential. He said that he had initially failed to check with the department’s legal counsel, who later advised that a search for license plate data is available only to law enforcement and can only be given to other state employees for official purposes.

Hansen said releasing the information would violate federal law and potentially cause the FBI to terminate Iowa’s access to the National Crime Information Center and other information databases.

“Law enforcement agencies as well as the general public would be put at risk should law enforcement not be able to access such information,” he wrote, adding, “I apologize for this situation.”

Branstad himself has demanded to know how many traffic camera tickets should have been but weren’t issued as part of a review of the 3,200 government license plates with the undercover designation. DOT spokeswoman Andrea Henry said that the agency was gathering aggregate data from cities, but had not decided whether the review will look at how many times each specific plate had avoided tickets.

“I would venture to guess that data is rather low,” she said. “Usually when state officials go out in official vehicles, they are following the laws.”

Branstad’s spokesman did not respond to inquiries Friday or Monday.

Matt Sinovic, executive director of Progress Iowa, a liberal group that has lampooned Branstad over the speeding incident, said the governor should try to find a way to make the information public.

“This is highly suspicious and exactly in line with the governor’s handling of this entire situation,” he said. “He needs to realize that his credibility and the credibility of his administration is on the line.”

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