Auditor candidates say their lawsuits against the state show they are effective watchdogs

By: - October 21, 2022 4:11 pm

Democratic incumbent Rob Sand will face off against Republican Todd Halbur in the November election. (Graphic made by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

State Auditor Rob Sand and Republican challenger Todd Halbur both cited their lawsuits against the state to show why they are the best choice to serve as an objective watchdog over Iowa government.

The candidates for state auditor participated Friday in a debate on “Iowa Press.”

Sand, a Democrat, has served as state auditor since 2019. Debate moderators asked Sand about his allegations that Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds misused of federal pandemic relief funds. In one case, the governor had to return $21 million in federal COVID-19 aid. Another report alleged she illegally sought to “promote herself” through a taxpayer-funded public awareness campaign during the pandemic.

Candidates for state auditor Rob Sand, left, and Todd Halbur debate on “Iowa Press” Oct. 21, 2022 on Iowa PBS. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS video)

Some Republicans said his report on the media campaign, which a state board determined was unfounded, was a political attack. Sand said he stands by his assessment that Reynolds should not have used her likeness in those public service announcements. He cited an instance where he criticized members of the Polk County Board of Supervisors, most of whom are Democrats, for putting themselves in advertisements using taxpayer funds.

The report does not mean he disagreed with the content of the “Step Up, Stop the Spread” campaign, he said.

“Our job is enforcing the rules and if we start looking at why it is you’re breaking the rules, then we’re not enforcing the rules anymore, we’re making a political judgment about whether or not we agree with your ultimate goal — not something that anyone should do,” Sand said. “If you’re robbing a bank to give the money to the poor, you are still robbing a bank.”

Halbur also has experience in holding the government accountable, he said. He won lawsuit against the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division earlier this month, when a jury found that he was wrongly fired for reporting illegal conduct. Halbur alleged he was wrongfully fired from his position at the agency for alleging it was collecting excess revenue from alcohol retailers. He was awarded $1 million in the lawsuit.

The former comptroller said he did not think his lawsuit against the state would impact his ability to work with Reynolds if she is reelected.

“I think it speaks volumes for someone that has the courage as a state employee, not an elected official, that stood up for what is right,” Halbur said. “And I think she would want someone as a state auditor to do what is right whether or not it is her appointee or someone else’s appointee.”

In lawsuits against the state, particularly in sexual harassment cases against a state employee, Sand has called for the perpetrator of the alleged wrongdoing to be held personally accountable for the costs of damages.

 Sand said his idea would shift the financial burden from taxpayers to individuals in cases where a court finds “willful and wanton misconduct,” he said. That was not the case in Halbur’s lawsuit, however.

“Willful and wanton is typically somebody doing something, and doing it repeatedly, and they know this is a terrible thing to do and they keep doing it,” Sand said. “Which is why it oftentimes comes up in the context of sexual harassment.”

Halbur said he would work with lawmakers to pass legislation on holding accountable offenders who are employed by the state, but that the auditor’s role is to enforce these rules, not create them.

“The lawmakers need to decide what kind of teeth we want to have in state government for either sexual harassment, whistleblowing, whatever the case may be,” he said. “And I would support those measures of what we would need to do.”

The “Iowa Press” debate airs at 7:30 p.m. Friday and noon Sunday on Iowa PBS.

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.