Unusual lawsuit alleges campaign violations against group that backed Ernst

By: - February 16, 2021 5:14 pm

An Iowa group is facing an unusual lawsuit over alleged campaign law violations. (Photo by Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The Iowa Values group that pumped nearly $1.5 million into supporting Republican Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s successful re-election campaign would be required to reveal its donors and possibly face fines for violating federal campaign finance laws, under an unusual lawsuit filed against the group late last week.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., by the New York City-based Campaign Legal Center (CLC), a non-partisan advocacy group. It is groundbreaking because it appears to be the first time that a little-known provision in federal campaign law is being used that allows a private individual or group to take a claim of campaign finance law violations directly to federal court.

That happened because the Federal Election Commission (FEC) never has acted on a complaint against Iowa Values that the CLC filed in December 2019 with the troubled agency that is supposed to be in charge of administering campaign finance laws.

The CLC alleged that Iowa Values was acting as a political committee and therefore was required to register with the FEC and file regular reports on its donors and spending.

The FEC took no action on the complaint — one of hundreds of complaints that have languished — because for many months the FEC has lacked enough members to conduct business. The agency regained its quorum in December 2020 with the approval by the Senate of three new commissioners.

CLC filed a lawsuit against the FEC in June 2020 for failing to act on its complaint.  Judge Royce Lamberth ruled late last week that because the FEC had failed to act, the CLC now had the right to sue Iowa Values directly.

That lawsuit was filed the next day, Friday, and was also assigned to Lamberth.

“Transparency around who is spending money to support or oppose federal candidates is a cornerstone of the Federal Election Campaign Act and critical to our democracy,” said Erin Chlopak, one of the CLC attorneys involved in the case.

The new lawsuit is likely to be watched closely since it comes against the backdrop of an agency that has been considered a weak enforcer of campaign laws since it began operating in 1975.

Judith Ingram, spokeswoman for the FEC, said the agency does not comment on litigation.

Derek Flowers, executive director of Iowa Values, said the lawsuit “rehashes the same tired allegations that CLC made to the FEC in 2019.”

“Iowa Values has responded to those allegations and eagerly awaits the FEC’s decision. The CLC sued the FEC last fall for not acting and now they’re suing Iowa Values, but the facts haven’t changed. Iowa Values has complied with the campaign finance laws and will continue to defend itself against these frivolous actions,” Flowers said.

Documents obtained by the Associated Press in the fall of 2019 showed close ties between the Ernst campaign and Iowa Values, in a possible violation of federal campaign laws. Iowa Values is what is known as a “dark money” group because it can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support a candidate or attack his or her opponent but does not have to reveal its donors. But the law forbids these groups from working closely, called coordinating, with a candidate’s campaign.

Instead, Iowa Values donated to an affiliated committee called Iowa Values Action, which in turn spent a total of more than $2 million on what are called independent expenditures: in this case, mailings and online, radio and TV ads supporting Ernst and attacking her Democratic opponent Theresa Greenfield. Ernst won by a 52 % to 45% margin.

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Bill Theobald
Bill Theobald

Bill Theobald is a longtime journalist, an Iowa native who began his career at the Quad-City Times in Davenport, Iowa. He has covered every level of government, from city councils to state legislatures, Congress and the White House. He has reported from Washington, D.C. since 2005.