State agency can’t enforce Iowa’s campaign finance laws; asks lawmakers for changes

Published: Jan. 27, 2023 at 9:24 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Jon Bartling isn’t working inside the Iowa State Capitol this month during the legislative session. The Bremer County Democrat is working at his normal construction job after losing his race for the statehouse.

Bartling, according to data from the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, is one of the thousands of politicians and advocacy groups who received fines for submitting campaign finance reports late. Our i9 Investigative Team found hundreds of fines haven’t been paid because Iowa Law doesn’t require when the penalty is paid. Our i9 Team also found the agency’s data is inaccurate and campaigns, along with advocacy groups, weren’t notified about penalties.

Bartling, who said he is a US Veteran, said he learned about his fine after he was contacted by our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team. He said it’s frustrating his campaign treasurer and local party office weren’t notified about any fine.

“You try to do everything right and you think you’re doing everything right,” Bartling said. “And then to find out that whether you did something wrong or it was a mistake, and not find out from them, to find out from you folks that’s the worst thing.”

Bartling can’t pay his fine because he doesn’t know how much the fine is worth. According to state data, the amount owed to the state is ‘blank’, which is similar to many other candidates who received fines like Iowa Democratic Chair Rep. Ross Wilburn (D-Iowa City). Wilburn said he couldn’t pay the fine because he hasn’t received an invoice.

Thousands of fines have been given to campaigns and advocacy groups. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-01) campaign received a fine as well as Tiffany O’Donnell’s mayoral campaign for Cedar Rapids.

Zach Goodrich, who is the executive director and legal counsel for the board, said the amount owed to the state is ‘blank’ because one of their seven staff members must manually enter the amount in the system. He also said there is no deadline on when an advocacy group or campaign must pay a fine, which means a delinquent group can pay a fine whenever they’d like with no punishment.

“I’ve been surprised, just as much as anyone, when I come into this position and I’ve seen that there are these fines not being paid for very egregious violations of our laws,” Goodrich said.

He said enforcing campaign finance laws was difficult because it couldn’t act like other government agencies with fines or enforceable actions.

“In these instances, it seems to be a total dereliction of enforcement of these campaign laws because there isn’t anything in our code specifically that says you need to pay within 30 days,” Goodrich said.

He said the agency didn’t keep file folders for cases or communicated with people who sent the agency complaints before he came into office. Goodrich also said advocacy groups and campaigns weren’t guaranteed to receive a notification about any fine before March 2022. He said this creates an additional problem because advocacy groups and campaigns don’t know they were assessed a fine, especially if a candidate or campaign is no longer active in politics.

“It goes down to a lack of communication that was originally expected from this agency,” Goodrich said. “But that’s another problem that we’ve been trying to solve very quickly with our new web reporting system to automate a lot of those things.”

Goodrich said they’ve seen an increase in people paying late fees since it created an automated system, which notifies candidates. He hopes there’s an increase in payments as people can pay online rather than mail a check. However, he said if a major candidate for Governor or any other elected official stopped submitting reports on their donors his agency could do “nothing”.

“We don’t have a very clearly defined process right now,” Goodrich said. “But that’s another thing that we’re working on reforming.”

He believes the legislature needs to create new laws, like requiring a deadline for fines, for his agency to enforce Iowa’s laws regarding campaign finance and ethics.

Our i9 Team also found the agency’s data is sometimes wrong. For example, State Rep. Eric Gjerde (D-Cedar Rapids) sent TV9 a cashed check showing he paid a fine, but the data shows he hasn’t paid. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) was listed in the state data for not paying a fine after not filing a personal financial disclosure form, but she did under the name ‘Kimberly Reynolds’. Sen. Claire Celsi (D-West Des Moines) sent TV9 documents showing her fine was waived, but the state data showed her fine wasn’t paid.

Sen. Celsi, who is on the legislative committee regulating the Iowa Ethics and Disclosure Board, said these issues are evidence there isn’t enough staff for the agency to oversee campaign finance laws for elections across Iowa. She also believed the agency is understaffed because she said she asked for an audit on her account and was told it could take years to process due to staffing shortages.

“Basically you get what you pay for,” Sen. Celsi said. “If you’re not staffing these agencies properly the services are not going to be up to snuff.”

Republicans control all of the Senate, the House and the Governor’s mansion. TV9 reached out to Republicans in both the senate and the house and didn’t hear back in time for publication.