Judge orders FEC to act on complaint against nonprofit group associated with Ernst

    Republican Sen. Joni Ernst participates in a debate on Sept. 28, 2020, on Iowa PBS. (Screen shot from Iowa PBS livestream)

    A district court judge ruled the Federal Election Commission must act on a complaint filed by an election watchdog against a political nonprofit group related to Sen. Joni Ernst’s re-election campaign.

    On Wednesday, District Court Judge Royce Lamberth ordered the FEC to act on the complaint against Iowa Values, a political nonprofit working to re-elect Ernst.

    The original complaint was filed in December 2019 by the nonpartisan group Campaign Legal Center. It alleges Iowa Values violated the Federal Election Campaign Act by failing to register as a political committee and disclosing its donors.

    The complaint followed an investigative story by the Associated Press reporting that Iowa Values, which was founded by top political aides to Ernst, had some overlap with Ernst to raise money and boost her election prospects, potentially violating a campaign law.

    Documents reviewed by the Associated Press showed Iowa Values worked with Ernst and her campaign “in close concert,” according to the story.

    “Today’s court ruling puts an incredible amount of pressure on Senator Ernst to answer for her dark money group’s outrageous and desperate efforts to illegally boost her re-election,” said Jeremy Busch, Iowa Democratic Party spokesperson, in a statement.

    Ernst and her Democratic opponent, Theresa Greenfield, and their political allies have traded frequent attacks over campaign spending by interest groups.

    Brendan Conley, spokesperson for Ernst’s campaign, pointed out that Greenfield also ran into trouble with election laws after her ex-campaign manager faked signatures for petition paperwork when she ran for Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District in 2018. Greenfield said she was unaware the signatures were not real. Ernst’s campaign also pointed to the FEC’s inquiry into some of the Greenfield campaign’s contributions this cycle.

    The term “dark money” refers to spending meant to influence political outcomes, but the source of the money is not disclosed, according to opensecrets.org. Political nonprofits are under no legal obligation to disclose their donors, but they are also required to work separately from candidates.

    Lamberth also ordered the FEC to pay Campaign Legal Center $400 for filing costs.

    Linh Ta
    Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.