Group that backed Ernst seeks FEC documents in fight to keep its own records secret

By: - April 12, 2022 3:32 pm

A group that supported U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s 2020 reelection bid is asking a federal judge to force the Federal Election Commission to turn over information related its handling of a complaint. Ernst is seen here speaking on the Senate floor on Jan. 11, 2022. (Screen shot from Senate video)

A group that supported U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s 2020 reelection bid is asking a federal judge to force the Federal Election Commission to turn over information related its handling of a complaint.

The Clive-based group Iowa Values allegedly spent close to $1.5 million supporting the Iowa Republican senator’s successful reelection campaign and is now being sued in federal court by the Campaign Legal Center, a national, non-partisan advocacy group.

The lawsuit marks the first known use of an obscure provision in federal campaign law that allows a private individual or group to take a claim of campaign finance violations directly to federal court. It was triggered by the Federal Election Commission’s inaction on a complaint the CLC filed against Iowa Values in 2019.

Iowa Values is a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation, and is not registered as a federal political committee subject to laws requiring the disclosure of donors. However, federal campaign finance laws require organizations whose “major purpose” is campaign activity, and which receive contributions or make expenditures of more than $1,000 per year, to register with the FEC as a political committee and file periodic reports disclosing its receipts, disbursements and debts.

While the law allows so-called “dark money” organizations to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to support a candidate without revealing their donors, the law prohibits such groups from coordinating those efforts with a candidate’s campaign.

Records obtained by the Associated Press show that a registered fundraiser for the Ernst campaign, Claire Holloway Avella, wrote to potential donors “on behalf of Iowa Values” in July 2019 and stated the “purpose of our group, Iowa Values, is to push back against these negative attack ads” against Ernst.

In her email and in an attached strategy memo, Avella asked for contributions of $50,000 to help Iowa Values shore up support for Ernst among the Iowa voters who “represent the ‘firewall’ between winning and losing in 2020 for Senator Ernst.” She assured the potential donors their contributions to Iowa Values would not be publicly disclosed.

One of the ads Iowa Values ran that year stated, “We deserve leaders who share our values, like Joni Ernst.” Another ad stated, “We deserve leaders who have walked in our shoes and share these beliefs — like Joni Ernst, standing up for Iowans all across our state and fighting for what we believe in.”

In court, Iowa Values has argued that these ads did not advocate for Ernst’s reelection and do not contain the “magic words” of expressly encouraging people to vote for Ernst.

“Merely recognizing an incumbent politician’s ‘leadership’ a year and a half before that politician will even run” isn’t the equivalent of asking the public to vote for that politician, Iowa Values said, adding that some people might perceive such ads as “simply thanking the politician” for their stance on the issues or their moral leadership.

CLC claims otherwise, saying the ads “could only be interpreted by a reasonable person as advocating Senator Ernst’s reelection.”

Iowa Values initially fought to have the lawsuit dismissed, arguing that the CLC should not be “permitted access to rifle through Iowa Values’ confidential files and potentially even to depose Iowa Values’ donors.” Having lost the fight to have the case dismissed, Iowa Values is now seeking access to FEC records the commission argues are confidential.

Judge: Only ‘real issue’ in strategy memo is Ernst’s election

Attorneys for Iowa Values recently filed a motion with the court asking the judge to compel the production of the documents that the FEC has refused to turn over in response to a subpoena. They claim the information that is sought will expose the FEC’s “abuse of its own administrative process.”

The records, Iowa Values claims, will show the commission deadlocked 3-3 as to whether there was reason to believe Iowa Values committed a violation, and that the three who felt a violation had occurred “weaponized the purely ministerial action of closing the file” by voting to keep the case open rather than close it.

The combination of those two actions, Iowa Values argues, is what opened the door for CLC to go to court and pursue a lawsuit over the same issues cited in the FEC complaint.

CLC has yet to file a response to that motion, but late last year the judge in the case rejected Iowa Values’ motion to dismiss the lawsuit on similar grounds.

U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled that the FEC had the opportunity to act on the complaints against Iowa Values and failed to do so. The lawsuit that was subsequently filed by CLC, Lamberth said, is actually part of the oversight process approved by Congress and the courts and is not, as Iowa Values argues, “a bypass” of that same process.

Such lawsuits, Lamberth said, are allowed precisely because the FEC’s enforcement of the law doesn’t always work, leaving citizens to seek enforcement on their own by taking the matter to court.

“While the defendant paints the FEC’s regulatory breakdown as the unforeseeable and unintended result of (the federal law’s) citizen-suit provision, it would be more accurate to say that the citizen-suit provision was created in anticipation of the FEC’s regulatory breakdown or inaction,” Lamberth ruled.

As for Iowa Values’ argument that CLC failed to identify any specific donations it had collected in violation of election laws, the judge ruled that argument was unpersuasive since the central issue in the case is Iowa Values’ refusal to disclose its donors’ identity.

The judge also rejected Iowa Values’ claim that the email and strategy memo from Avella wasn’t part of a focused effort to secure Ernst’s reelection.

“While the email pays lip service to policy issues, the only real issue discussed in either document is the issue of Ernst’s election,” Lamberth ruled, adding that there’s already more than enough evidence before the court for CLC to make a plausible claim that “Iowa Values’ major purpose was to elect Ernst in 2020.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.