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When worlds collide: FOIA reveals ousted Iowa official’s fixation with Tupac Shakur

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When Gov. Kim Reynolds abruptly fired the head of the Iowa Department of Human Services, she refused to say why. The dismissal of director Jerry Foxhoven came as a shock to legislators who liked the official even as they clashed with him over his work to privatize the $5 billion Medicaid program and make other changes in the state’s largest agency.

Within days of the firing, Iowa City correspondent Ryan J. Foley got a startling tip from a reliable source: The ouster may have been due to Foxhoven’s over-the-top fondness for Tupac Shakur. The suggestion that an obsession with the late rapper led to Foxhoven’s dismissal seemed bizarre, but as Foley checked into it he found the same speculation from three more sources. One suggested Foley file a FOIA for all emails to and from Foxhoven with the words Tupac and 2Pac during his two-year tenure.

Foley managed the rare feat of connecting state government to a 1990s rap icon.

To Foley’s surprise, the agency released 350 pages of records that documented how Foxhoven hosted “Tupac Fridays” to listen to his music, routinely shared Shakur lyrics with employees, and marked the anniversary of Shakur’s death and birthday every year. The documents showed that some had complained about his Shakur missives, but they continued. Reynolds asked Foxhoven to resign the day after he had sent a mass email to all 4,300 DHS employees telling them to commemorate Shakur’s birthday by listening to one of his songs.

Over several days, the governor’s spokesman wouldn’t comment specifically whether Foxhoven’s missives about Shakur prompted the director’s removal, but he didn’t deny the emails were among the many factors that led to his ouster.

Foley’s story caused a nearly instant sensation in Iowa,as members gave the news big play online,on broadcasts and in print. But the response was equally large among national outlets that credited the AP for the scoop while giving their own spin on the story. Those weighing in included The New York Times,theGrio website,Esquire,Fox News, Poynter’s daily news roundup and the Daily Beast. NPR’s “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell me!” devoted a “Bluff the Listener” segment to the story.

Days later the governor’s office finally released a statement denying Foxhoven had been fired over his love of Shakur,but the governor still wouldn’t explain her actions. Foxhoven later told the AP his dismissal followed a dispute over shifting an agency employee to the governor’s office,and Democrats are now calling for hearings on the matter as the state auditor moves ahead with an investigation. Amid the turmoil,a Des Moines T-shirt shop has started selling a new shirt: IOWA NEEDS TUPAC.

For investigating a tip rather than laughing it off,and then writing a story that managed the rare feat of connecting state government to a 1990s rap icon, Foley wins this week’s Best of the States award.

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