IA-Gov: PPP poll shows cronyism/hush money scandal hurting Branstad

I’ve been meaning to catch up on the various Branstad administration scandals involving alleged politically-motivated firings, cronyism affecting state contracting and hiring for certain public positions, “hush money” paid in exchange for non-disclosure agreements with fired state employees, blacklists that prevent former employees from gaining other state jobs, interference in what should be non-political work, and possible misuse of federal funds by the Department of Administrative Services in order to make some of the unauthorized secret settlement payments. Governor Terry Branstad realized nearly two weeks ago that his quickie internal review and executive order on secret settlements were not sufficient. He fired Department of Administrative Services Director Mike Carroll after Carroll gave inaccurate testimony at a legislative hearing. But almost every day, the Des Moines Register or some other media outlet has a new angle on alleged wrongdoing.

Last week’s Loras College survey of Iowa Republicans indicated that Branstad has nothing to worry about from his GOP primary challenger, Tom Hoefling. But a Public Policy Polling survey released today shows Branstad’s approval as low as I can remember seeing it during his current term, and the incumbent barely ahead of Democratic challenger Jack Hatch.

Full results from the survey are here (pdf). Highlights are after the jump.  

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Shelby releases some holds, still blocking military nominees

Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama released holds on most of the Obama administration nominees he has been blocking, the Washington Post reports, citing a statement from Shelby’s office:

“The purpose of placing numerous holds was to get the White House’s attention on two issues that are critical to our national security – the Air Force’s aerial refueling tanker acquisition and the FBI’s Terrorist Device Analytical Center (TEDAC). With that accomplished, Sen. Shelby has decided to release his holds on all but a few nominees directly related to the Air Force tanker acquisition until the new Request for Proposal is issued. The Air Force tanker acquisition is not an ‘earmark’ as has been reported; it is a competition to replace the Air Force’s aging aerial refueling tanker fleet. Sen. Shelby is not seeking to determine the outcome of the competition; he is seeking to ensure an open, fair and transparent competition that delivers the best equipment to our men and women in uniform.”

I wonder whether any of Shelby’s GOP colleagues leaned on him to take this step. They may have been worried about mainstream media coverage of Shelby’s grotesque hostage-taking exercise, or they may not want to push things too far in case Senate Democrats change the rules on putting “holds” on nominees.

Shelby’s power play is not over yet, because he is still vowing to block nominees “directly related to the Air Force tanker acquisition.” Emptywheel found out which nominees are covered by Shelby’s hold:

    * Terry Yonkers, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment, and Logistics (Nominated August 4, 2009)

    * Frank Kendall, Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense (PDUSD) for Acquisition and Technology (Nominated August 6, 2009)

    * Erin Conaton, Under Secretary of the Air Force (Nominated November 10, 2009)

Democrats should blast Republicans for indulging Shelby while key Air Force positions remain vacant during wartime. I would encourage Roxanne Conlin’s campaign not to drop its “fight the hold” effort until Republicans allow the Senate to vote on all of these nominees.

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IA-Sen: Conlin organizing against Shelby's "political extortion"

Whether you call it hostage-taking or shark-jumping, we can all agree that Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama is abusing Senate conventions. He has put a blanket hold on all Obama administration nominees until his state gets more than $40 billion in federal money.

Roxanne Conlin, one of three Iowa Democrats running against five-term incumbent Chuck Grassley, may be the first Democratic candidate in the country to organize against Shelby’s power play.

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Iowa legislature pretends to care about money in politics

On March 18 the Iowa House voted 96 to 0 to pass a bill banning candidates from using campaign funds to pay themselves or immediate family members a salary. This measure closes the so-called “Ed Fallon loophole,” named because Fallon received $13,750 from his gubernatorial campaign between June and November 2006 after losing the Democratic primary.

The Iowa Senate approved Senate File 50 in February (also unanimously). Governor Chet Culver is expected to sign the bill and may have done so already, but I did not find confirmation of that on the governor’s website.

Looking at the text of Senate File 50, I noticed that it defines “immediate family member” as “the spouse or dependent child of a candidate.”

I’ve been told that at least 20 members of the Iowa House (including Democrats and Republicans) employ either their spouse or child as a clerk. Apparently it is fine for spouses and children of state legislators to draw a salary from taxpayer dollars, but it becomes a terrible ethical problem for a candidate to draw a salary from money voluntarily contributed by supporters.

I have more to say about this farcical bill after the jump.

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Naughty Judd Gregg made money off earmarks

Thanks to New Hampshire blogger Dean Barker I learned something new today about Senator Judd Gregg. According to the Associated Press,

President Barack Obama’s former nominee to become commerce secretary, Sen. Judd Gregg, steered taxpayer money to his home state’s redevelopment of a former Air Force base even as he and his brother engaged in real estate deals there, an Associated Press investigation found.

Gregg, R-N.H., personally has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in Cyrus Gregg’s office projects at the Pease International Tradeport, a Portsmouth business park built at the defunct Pease Air Force Base, once home to nuclear bombers. Judd Gregg has collected at least $240,017 to $651,801 from his investments there, Senate records show, while helping arrange at least $66 million in federal aid for the former base.

Sadly, this isn’t unprecedented or even the most egregious example of members of Congress profiting from earmarks. Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert sold real estate for nearly $2 million in profits after he secured federal earmarks to construct the Prairie Parkway near land he owned.

What looks corrupt in politics turns out to be legal more often than not, and that seems to be the case here. The AP says Senate ethics rules do not permit senators to direct earmarks to projects “solely” in order to benefit themselves or their family members financially, but of course Gregg could point to all kinds of benefits from redeveloping the former base.

“I am absolutely sure that in every way I’ve complied with the ethics rules of the Senate both literally and in their spirit relative to any investment that I’ve made anywhere,” Gregg told the AP. “These earmarks do not benefit me in any way, shape, manner financially, personally or in any other manner other than the fact that I’m a citizen of New Hampshire.”

Still, one wonders whether this story prompted Gregg to withdraw his nomination for Commerce Secretary. Whatever his reasons, we’re better off without him.

Members of Congress should stick to the usual form of legalized corruption and only seek earmarks that would personally profit their large campaign contributors.

No one raises ethical concerns about that behavior. As a bonus, donors who stand to gain from the earmarks may go the extra mile during the incumbent’s next tough campaign.

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A contest Iowa has no hope of winning

At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall just opened nominations for the second annual “Golden Duke Awards,” “given out for excellence in corrupt acts, betrayals of the public trust and generalized shameful behavior.” You have until December 17 to submit nominations in the following categories:

Sleaziest Campaign Ad

Best Election Season Fib

Outstanding Achievement in Corruption-based Chutzpah

Best Scandal — Sex and Generalized Carnality

Best Scandal — Local Venue

Best Scandal — General Interest

Click here to view last year’s Golden Duke winners.

Talking Points Memo also has launched a contest to determine the most corrupt state. Reader WO named the short list:

I think it’s pretty clear that the only three serious contenders are Illinois, Louisiana, and Alaska. My money would be on the young upstart, Alaska, over the grizzled corruption veterans of Illinois and Louisiana, but who knows. Statistics should play a part in the contest, but style points are important, too. Cash in the freezer is pretty impressive, as is trying to shake down the President-Elect.

One of Marshall’s readers in New Orleans argues here that Louisiana is the “all time champ”.

A reader in Arizona explains why that state should be a finalist.

Another reader makes the case for Nevada.

Marshall also received a bunch of e-mails nominating New York, New Jersey or Rhode Island. He explained here why those states are not in the same league as Illinois, Louisiana or Alaska:

I know there are a lot of hurt feelings out there. A lot of people feel slighted on behalf of their states. But while a number of these states have impressive histories of corruption, as I told a few emailers, a lot of it really comes down to a case of ‘what have you done for me lately?’ […]

Sure, there’s plenty of crooks in New York and New Jersey and Rhode Island. And Massachusetts has its moment. But I’m just not sure any of them can put the kind of serious and recent per capita muck on the table as these three other worthy states. Certainly not when it comes to governors and federal officeholders.

I think we can all agree that Iowa is never going to win any (mock) awards for political corruption.

Historically and today, our problem is not so much law-breaking by elected officials but the “legal corruption” that stems from the influence of money in our system. So, we get state lawmakers traveling on the dime of the Iowa Healthcare Association, which represents nursing homes, and then lobbying Congress and state officials to reduce regulation of nursing homes.

Similarly, we won’t get any legislative action to give counties zoning authority over agriculture (which would allow greater regulation of large hog lots), even though Governor Chet Culver as well as the Iowa Democratic and Republican party platforms ostensibly support “local control.”

Iowa is not a particularly corrupt state, but we should not let our squeaky-clean image blind us to the influence of money in politics, even here.

To get involved with solving this problem, check out the Voter-Owned Iowa website. Public Campaign’s site has tons of information on how “clean elections” systems work in other states.  

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