Auditor suggests retaliation by GOP lawmakers over Hawkeye football lawsuit
State Auditor Rob Sand suggests Republican lawmakers are working to curtail his office’s authority in retaliation for his vote on a lawsuit settlement involving former University of Iowa football players. (Sand photo is a screen shot from Iowa PBS; Barta photo by UI Athletic Department; Kinnick photo courtesy of UI Facilities Management)
State Auditor Rob Sand said Thursday a Senate-passed bill to curtail his office’s authority may be retaliation for his call for University of Iowa’s athletic director to resign or be fired.
Sand voted Monday against approving a discrimination lawsuit settlement against the university unless Athletics Director Gary Barta is fired or resigns. On Tuesday, Iowa Senate Republicans amended a bill to strip numerous powers from the auditor’s office.
“It’s either partisan, or it’s anger about the Barta situation, or it’s both,” Sand said. “But again, this is what I want to emphasize: what their motivations are — what their motivations are we don’t need to understand, to understand how dangerous that this bill is.”
Senate File 478 would restrict the state auditor’s ability to access information including income tax returns, medical records, academic information and “other similar information that an individual would reasonably expect to be kept private.”
An amendment offered by the bill’s floor manager, Sen. Mike Bousselot, R-Ankeny, also would prevent the auditor from accessing criminal identification files from law enforcement agencies or law enforcement officers’ investigative reports and communication records if that information is part of an ongoing investigation.
The auditor can access this information if they prove to the agency being audited that the information is necessary to conduct the audit. The agency also has to agree with the auditor’s assessment before the request will be met. The bill also require written consent from the individual involved to disclose their information through an audit.
Sand said these further restrictions make the legislation the “single most pro-corruption bill that has ever come out of the Iowa Legislature.”
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Requiring the entities first consent to having their records audited completely takes away the office’s ability to uncover waste, fraud and abuse, Sand said. If an agency knows, or even is just concerned that certain information could prove misconduct or misuse of funds, Sand said they could simply deny the state auditor’s office access to that information through this bill.
“Does anybody think that people in charge of waste, fraud and abuse — who either know what’s happening on their watch or are learning about it only when the auditor comes asking — want to hand that material over?” Sand said in a news conference. “Or do they do it because they have to?”
The bill and amendment were brought to the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, but debate was delayed several hours as Democrats and Sand looked at the new bill language and brought forward their own amendment, which failed. Sand said he repeatedly reached out to Republicans to discuss the bill, but the only communication he had was a brief conversation with Senate President Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton.
Sand was the sole vote on a three-member appeal board Monday against approving the $4.17 million settlement reached in a racial discrimination lawsuit filed by 12 former University of Iowa football players, who are Black, against UI Athletics and its coaches. The auditor said he was opposed to using taxpayer funds to settle the suit unless Barta is removed from his position, as this is the fourth discrimination case against UI Athletics during Barta’s tenure with more than $7 million paid in previous settlements.
The UI Athletics Department will repay the state $2 million for the lawsuit, University of Iowa President Barbara Wilson said in a statement Thursday. But Wilson has not yet answered questions on Barta’s employment, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said Republicans’ introduction of a “four page amendment on Tuesday that transformed a two-page bill” could be related Sand’s comments regarding the UI lawsuit.
“While I think Democrats were opposed to (the original bill), you know, we certainly were much more concerned about the transformation of that,” Wahls said in a Thursday news conference. “So I think that it does raise the question of whether or not those things were linked.”
During debate Tuesday, Democrats said it’s no coincidence that GOP lawmakers are targeting the only statewide office with an elected Democrat. Sand won reelection in 2022 but long-serving Democrats Attorney General Tom Miller and Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald both lost to Republican challengers.
But Republicans argued the measure does not take away the state auditor’s ability to conduct audits — it just puts restrictions on the office’s access to information on individuals that is irrelevant to an audit. If the auditor is investigating a transaction by the University of Iowa, Bousselot said the auditor can currently look at any professors’ grades given to students. Under the bill that information — and other personal, identifiable information — could not be accessed unless it was agreed as relevant to the purview of the audit, he said.
“That, to me, isn’t about partisanship,” Bousselot said. “It’s about saying privacy matters, that you shouldn’t just get to look at anything you want and anytime you want.”
But Sand argued the bill goes far beyond the scope of protecting privacy or ensuring audits meet professional standards. Bousselot should bring allegations of any offense committed during an audit to a Certified Practicing Accountant ethics review board, because CPAs in the state auditor’s office are already required to meet professional standards to sign onto an audit, he said.
The auditor’s office is already required to meet “generally accepted auditing standards” as required by Iowa Code Chapter 11, Sand said.
“You want to make sure this office follows standards? Just write that into the law,” Sand said. “I think it’s already there … But let’s just go ahead and take a look at that. That’s something that we could have done, had we had a conversation about this. We already follow standards. But if that’s your concern, then just to make sure Chapter 11 says that all of our audits are going to follow standards. That’s called codifying current practice, and they do it in this building all the time.”
A bipartisan group of state auditors with the National State Auditors Association and former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker published letters calling for state lawmakers to reject the bill. If the Iowa auditor can’t obtain sufficient and appropriate evidence to issue an opinion on state financial statements and compliance with laws and regulations, NSAA President John Geragosian, the Connecticut state auditor, said the proposed limitations could cause Iowa to lose federal funds that require certain audits, and could hurt the state’s bond rating.
The bill now awaits review by the House State Government Committee.
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