Law firm behind conservative litigation is a charity backed by unknown donors

By: - July 26, 2022 4:20 pm

The Kirkwood Institute is a self-described “conservative public-interest law firm” that operates in Iowa as a tax-exempt public charity that pursues litigation against government agencies as part of a “conservative legal movement.” (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch. Inset photo courtesy of Alan Ostergren of the Kirkwood Institute.)

In the past two years, a spate of lawsuits has been filed in the Iowa courts by one man who says he’s out to create a “conservative legal movement” in Iowa through civil litigation.

What’s not clear, though, is who’s bankrolling all of the lawsuits.

The organization is called the Kirkwood Institute, and it’s run by former Muscatine County Attorney Alan Ostergren.

In 2018, Ostergren won re-election to a third term as the county’s top criminal prosecutor, but he did so with a narrower margin of victory than he would have liked.

A Republican, Ostergren says he got “a little ‘blue wave’ on my shoes and it almost drew me under.” The experience caused him to step back and reassess where he was in his career. As part of that process, he said recently on the Iowans for Tax Relief podcast, he talked to his conservative friends about Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds’ narrow victory that year over Democrat Fred Hubbell.

“The question I posed to my friends, and started thinking about myself, was, ‘Who would have been ready to sue Gov. Hubbell on day one, to block executive overreach and abuse of the laws that the Legislature had passed?’ And the answer was, ‘Nobody.’ I think he would have been taking a victory lap and we would have been getting our shoes tied, and we would have been in a bad spot. I started thinking (it) through: Why do we not have a conservative legal movement in the form of a public interest law firm here in Iowa? And I realized we don’t have that, and we need that.”

That realization, he said, caused him to resign from the county attorney’s position in early 2020 so he could form the Kirkwood Institute, a one-man litigation firm that specializes in conservative causes.

The institute describes itself as “nonpartisan” and it is recognized by the IRS as a tax-exempt public charity. But the institute also calls itself a “conservative public-interest law firm,” and it doesn’t publicly disclose its expenses or the source of its income as many public charities do.

Over the past two years, the institute has opposed mask mandates in schools; sued the City of Cedar Rapids for “discriminating” against white people in appointments to a citizens’ police-review board; represented Reynolds in litigation in the fight to impose new restrictions on abortion; sued the state over licensing board requirements; sued the state auditor, a Democrat, for access to office emails; sued the state over a gender quota used in the selection process to fill vacancies on the State Judicial Nominating Commission; and sued Orange City over its mandatory inspection of rental properties.

As a private attorney, Ostergren has represented Republican congressional candidates in court, as well as Republicans who challenged Democratic U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer’s efforts to appear on the primary ballot for the U.S. Senate this year, and he has sued an Iowa school district over its mask mandates.

Law firm is a charity backed by unknown donors 

So who is paying Ostergren’s salary at the institute and financing all of its litigation?

Ostergren told the Iowa Capital Dispatch on Tuesday that he collects no pay from the institute, but he declined to elaborate as to the source of his income. “I’ll keep my personal details private,” he said. “I have not actually drawn a salary from the Kirkwood Institute.”

As for the institute’s income and expenses, most charities report that information to the IRS on the Form 990 tax return, which is open to the public – but they do so only if their gross receipts exceed $50,000 per year. Ostergren said the institute’s total annual income is less than that. (The organization’s website routes supporters to a site that displays a fundraising goal of $50,000 with one donation of $500 received so far.)

Asked who exactly is funding the litigation, Ostergren said, “We have support from individuals, primarily,” though he declined to elaborate.

State records indicate that two of the Kirkwood Institute’s four board members help run Iowans for Tax Relief, a conservative Muscatine-based organization that reported $532,000 in income in 2020.

The two Kirkwood board members are Christopher Ingstad, president of the Iowans for Tax Relief Foundation, and Rich Phillips, a former Muscatine County prosecutor who has also served as an Iowans for Tax Relief vice president.

Ostergren himself is listed by Iowans for Tax Relief as one of its “contributing scholars.”

Asked whether Iowans for Tax Relief or its foundation are financing the Kirkwood Institute, Ostergren said, “You know, they’re good friends, but I am not going to discuss who the contributors are, who the donors are, for Kirkwood Institute. You know, we comply with all of the requirements for filing our tax forms accordingly.”

The other board members for the Kirkwood Institute are Ed Bull, currently the Marion County attorney, and Matthew Schwarz, a former Muscatine police officer who now heads Schwarz Forensics in Ankeny. At one time, Ostergren was the director of operations at Schwarz Forensics.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch was unable reach any of the board members for comment Tuesday.

Ostergren says while the institute is still a small, “bare-bones” operation, he hopes to see it grow.

On the Iowans for Tax Relief podcast, he also spoke of the need to continue “pursuing conservative victories” through the use of Iowa’s court system.

“I think it’s really important that, on the left, that they know we are going to use the resources of the court,” he said. “And it’s not because they are stacked to our advantage. It’s because when you look at how some of these programs are developed or implemented, they are contrary to core constitutional principles and can’t withstand scrutiny.”

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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.