Gov. Kim Reynolds addresses the state on COVID-19 response Nov. 16, 2020. (Screen shot via Iowa PBS)
After Iowa Auditor of State Rob Sand released a report Thursday alleging Gov. Kim Reynolds illegally sought to “promote herself” through a taxpayer-funded, COVID-19 public awareness campaign, the governor said the law “clearly allows” such a campaign.
The governor’s “Step Up, Stop The Spread” media campaign, which was announced in November 2020, was part of an effort to encourage Iowans to do their part in slowing the spread of the virus.
According to Sand’s report, Reynolds spent more than $500,000 in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding. Specifically, money from the act’s Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity Enhancing Detection supplement were used for the campaign, with $152,585 of the total spent on television, radio and internet advertisements.
In questioning the legality of that expenditure, Sand cited a state law that says statewide elected officials “shall not permit the expenditure of public moneys under the control of the statewide elected official for the purpose of any paid advertisement or promotion bearing the written name, likeness, or voice of the statewide elected official.”
The law goes on to say that any official who willfully violates the statute “shall be subject to a civil penalty of an amount up to the amount of moneys used to fund the communication,” with the penalty paid by the official’s political candidate’s committee.
The auditor’s report also notes that financing the ad campaign with CARES Act funding marked for enhancing laboratory capacity was “not a clearly acceptable use” of the money. The report said the Iowa Department of Public Health gave auditors two emails, both from February 2021, “showing that after creating the campaign and spending the funds, they sought and received confirmation that it would not run afoul of federal law.”
Sand is a Democrat and has said he is considering a challenging Reynolds, a Republican, in the 2022 race for governor.
Reynolds said Thursday that Sand’s report ignores a key element of the Iowa law that speaks to the authority of the governor during a public health disaster emergency. She said that element of the law includes a specific exemption directly related to the powers of the governor during public health emergencies.
“Auditor Sand didn’t once ask to meet with our team regarding his concern or his investigation,” Reynolds’ chief of staff, Sara Craig, said in a statement. “If he had, we would have pointed him to this essential part of the law that he clearly missed.”
“I’m proud of the ‘Step Up, Stop the Spread’ public service announcement,” Reynolds said in a written statement. “I felt it was important for me and other leaders to address Iowans during the height of the pandemic.”
Responding to the governor’s defense of the ads, Sand argued that Reynolds, in various disaster proclamations issued during the pandemic, never referenced the element of the law she now relies on, and said her proclamations explicitly stated, “Nothing contained in this declaration shall be construed as an exemption from any other portion of the Iowa Code or Iowa Administrative Code not specifically identified in this proclamation.“
Sand also took issue with Reynolds’ office calling the law the “name and likeness statute,” stating that was an attempt by Reynolds “to distract from what the governor did: promote herself with taxpayer funds.” His office said it had sent a copy of the report to Reynolds’ staff on Wednesday, one day before the report was made public.
“With this type of report, it is standard operating procedure in the state auditor’s office to provide a copy of the report to the examined entity the day prior to the public release of the report,” said Annette Campbell, deputy auditor of state. “If there is an issue, it is raised in that frame of time and corrective action is taken if needed.”
Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann released a written statement Thursday afternoon in response to the auditor’s report, calling Sand “a partisan, political agent who weaponizes the state auditor’s office for his own gain and to further his political ambitions.”
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