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Emails: Safety chiefs uneasy over border duty

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DES MOINES -- As Gov. Kim Reynolds prepared in June to announce she was sending Iowa State Patrol employees to the nation’s border with Mexico, the state’s top public safety leaders raised concerns whether her commitment would leave enough staff for “law enforcement obligations in Iowa” and run up a “significant cost for sending personnel out of state,” according to records obtained by The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette.

Further, the records reveal, the Republican governor and other top officials knew sending troopers to Texas could cost the state up to nearly $400,000 — but they didn’t share that information with legislators or the public for weeks.

On June 24, when Reynolds announced the deployment — which she said was in response to pleas from Republican Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug Ducey of Arizona — she asserted in a public statement she had been assured the move would not jeopardize public safety in Iowa.

“My first responsibility is to the health and safety of Iowans and the humanitarian crisis at our nation’s southern border is affecting all 50 states,” she said in the statement. “The rise in drugs, human trafficking and violent crime has become unsustainable. Iowa has no choice but to act, and it’s why I am honoring Texas’ Emergency Management Assistance Compact following assurances from the Iowa Department of Public Safety that it will not compromise our ability to provide all necessary public safety services to Iowans.”

Joe Bolkcom

Bolkcom

After the announcement, Democratic state Sen. Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City wrote emails June 29 and 30 to Sarah Jennings, legislative liaison for the Iowa Department of Public Safety, asking for answers about the deployment. But he did not receive specifics about the timing of the trip, the number of officers it would involve or the estimated cost.

“This is just the latest example of the Reynolds administration keeping Iowans in the dark,” Bolkcom told The Gazette. “The bigger issue for me is (Reynolds) using these state resources and Iowa State Patrol in an ongoing effort to build her far-right political resume.”

The Gazette requested documents under the Open Records Law about what officials believe to be the first out-of-state deployment of state troopers in Iowa’s roughly quarter century of being in the Emergency Management Assistance Compact — an agreement among states that sets the protocols for mutual aid.

To learn more about the decisions behind the unprecedented deployment, the newspaper reviewed more than 3,500 pages of emails from Iowa Public Safety and Iowa Homeland Security officials surrounding the July 8-23 trek of 28 Iowa State Patrol employees to Texas.

Among the findings:

• The State Patrol estimated June 17 the 16-day deployment could cost the public $383,700, but wouldn’t provide those estimates to reporters or lawmakers.

• Iowa signed an agreement July 2 to waive reimbursement from Texas for the cost of deployment, but four days later told Iowans that reimbursement terms still were being worked out.

• Iowa didn’t lend law enforcement officers when neighboring Minnesota requested aid under the same Emergency Management Assistance Compact for “civil unrest” after the murder of George Floyd. But Reynolds’ office “had considerable interest” in requests for aid from states along the Mexican border.

• State Patrol leaders expressed concerns among themselves, to their supervisors and to a counterpart in another state about the deployment.

Iowa State Patrol Col. Nathan Fulk

Fulk

“This request creates staffing and logistical concerns regarding our current position based on the 16-day deployment request for personnel/resources,” Col. Nathan Fulk, who leads the Iowa State Patrol, wrote June 16 to Stephan Bayens, who as Reynolds’ appointee leads the Department of Public Safety.

The concern came after a June 10 letter from Abbott and Ducey asking other states to send “all available law-enforcement resources” to help with a surge of illegal border crossings.

Although the Emergency Management Assistance Compact allows for reimbursement of costs when states help each other out in times of disaster or unrest, Texas and Arizona — which have spent millions on border enforcement — wanted states to foot the bill.

Bayens and a counterpart in Alabama expressed doubt about the cost.

“What’s your governor thinking?” Hal Taylor, secretary of law enforcement at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, asked Bayens on June 16 after Bayens forwarded Taylor a copy of the detailed request that came into Iowa’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“Speaking with her at 2:30 p.m.,” Bayens replied of Reynolds. “The cost waiver request may be a deal-breaker in my opinion.”

“That’s what did it for my Governor. We just can’t afford it,” Taylor wrote.

Bayens and Catherine Lucas, the state Public Safety Department lawyer, emailed several times June 14 with the subject line “Fwd: Emergency Management Assistance Compact.” But the department censored the text of those emails, saying it was exempt from Iowa’s public records law.

Ten days later, Reynolds announced Iowa would send troopers to the border. At that time, Iowa was one of seven states with Republican governors to indicate plans to send officers to assist with border security.

On July 2, Iowa Homeland Security officials signed a contract saying the deployment would be “at no cost” to Texas. Yet on July 6, public safety officials still weren’t telling the public who would pay for the deployment. The contract remained secret until the Associated Press reported on it July 12.

“Expenses for this mission will not be calculated until it has fully concluded and discussions regarding payment structures are ongoing,” Public Safety spokeswoman Debbie McClung had told reporters. “The reimbursement process and travel/logistics are not solidified at the present time.”

In fact, emails show State Patrol leaders had put together a cost estimate for the deployment by June 17 that showed it could be up to $383,700. The estimate was considered “likely high, rather than low,” emails said, and included $14,000 for airfare. The employees ultimately drove, however, taking a combination of state and rented vehicles.

Actual costs ended up being $294,853, including regular salaries, overtime, lodging, meals, fuel and rentals, according to a July 27 email. That money will come from the State Patrol’s general fund.

At a news conference July 28, officials said that total should be marked down by about $100,000 because the state would have been spending that on the troopers’ regular salaries anyway. But Iowans did not get services from those troopers during that time, and the department did not call in off-duty officers to backfill for the openings, McClung confirmed.

The mission

Iowa State Patrol troopers were scheduled to leave July 8 for a two-day drive to Del Rio, a border city in western Texas, where they stayed at a Ramada Inn.

Of the 28 officers who went to Texas, 12 were to be paired with Texas troopers for public safety services including “traffic enforcement, criminal interdiction, crime prevention and provide assistance to other area agencies,” records show. Another 13 were paired with Texas Rangers, a division that investigates “major violent crime, public corruption, cold case and officer-involved shooting investigations and oversee(s) the department’s border security and tactical and crisis negotiation programs,” according to its website.

Iowa committed to sending two supervisors and one Spanish-speaking investigator to help with sex abuse investigations, records show.

At the post-deployment news conference July 28, Patrol Capt. Mark Miller said troopers made arrests, seized illegal drugs, firearms and money while helping people with food, water and other necessities as they attempted to cross into the United States.

No numbers have been released about how many people Iowa troopers, specifically, arrested during the deployment. But during the 12 days Iowa officers were working in Texas, the operation resulted in 240 arrests, 51 vehicle pursuits and the seizure of 948 pounds of marijuana, 37 pounds of methamphetamine and cocaine, 18 firearms and $1.7 million from criminal activities, the Iowa State Patrol reported.

Why this deployment?

Reynolds has spoken extensively about her concerns illegal immigrants are bringing drugs into the country and increasing COVID-19 rates. Coupled with her criticism of Democratic President Joe Biden’s border policy, some Republicans have speculated she may be interested in higher office.

On June 10, the same day Abbott and Ducey sent their letter requesting help, Reynolds issued a news release saying she and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee demanded congressional hearings on the border crisis.

Bayens forwarded that release to Paul Feddersen, assistant director in charge of the department’s Division of Narcotics Enforcement, with the note “FYSA,” which likely means “for your situational awareness.”

Feddersen replied, “Interesting.”

Interim Iowa Homeland Security Director John Benson wrote an email June 11 to Blake DeRouchey, the Homeland Security legislative liaison. “There is considerable interest in possible EMAC requests from states along the southern border. Please keep a close eye out for any and all EMAC requests. If we do receive some through the system let me know as soon as possible so I can inform the Governor’s Office.”

DeRouchey replied June 14 that he had looked that morning and had seen a new posting from Texas, but no formal request providing details.

“Can you pull that down for me?” Benson replied. “I would like to see it and possibly forward to IGOV so they can see the event but also that no requests have been created thus far.”

On July 23, while preparing for the post-deployment news conference, Public Safety lawyer Lucas wrote to Benson asking whether Minnesota had used the assistance agreement to call for help during protests that turned violent following George Floyd’s May 25, 2020, murder in Minneapolis.

“Do you know if Minnesota used EMAC last summer? (we are anticipating question of why sending to TX but not MN last summer),” Lucas wrote.

Benson said Minnesota had requested 19 people, including 15 law enforcement, for “civil unrest” and 123 law enforcement officers during April’s trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who was convicted of killing Floyd.

“We did not support either of those — however for background, we were prepared to support a National Guard helicopter for the George Floyd funeral, which was canceled by Minnesota the day prior,” Benson wrote.

Iowa National Guard members did go to California last year to help with wildfires, Benson said.

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