Report scrutinizes Tom Miller's campaign contributions

Kevin McNellis of the National Institute on Money in State Politics published a report yesterday on Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller’s 2010 campaign fundraising. The report connects Miller’s contributions from out-of-state law firms and people in the finance, insurance, and real estate sector with the nationwide foreclosure investigation Miller has been leading since October. Miller objects that the report “is false or misleading from the start to the finish.” More details and context are after the jump.

Key findings from McNellis’ report: Miller raised much more money from out-of-state sources in 2010 than in his two previous campaigns. Many of his large donors had connections to firms that either represent financial giants or are involved in mortgage-related litigation against lenders. Furthermore,

Nearly half of the money Miller raised in 2010-$338,223 of $785,103-was donated after the October 13 announcement that he would be coordinating the 50-state attorneys general investigation.

Table 2 shows Miller’s major contributions from out-of-state attorneys and law firms. McNellis then lists some of the largest donors and explains their connection to the finance, insurance, and real estate sector or mortgage-related litigation. Miller received large donations from several plaintiffs’ lawyers who are suing large banks and lenders over subprime mortgage or mortgage modification practices. He also received contributions from attorneys or law firms that represent large banks and mortgage lenders. In addition, McNellis lists several large donors to the Democratic Attorneys General Association, which gave Miller’s campaign $50,000. I recommend clicking through to read the whole report.

Speaking to the Des Moines Register, Miller denied that he received significant campaign contributions to influence his foreclosure investigation:

Millers said the report “is false or misleading from the start to the finish,” noting that almost all of the specific contributors listed in the report are not involved in the foreclosure irregularity issue.

Furthermore the report compares Miller’s campaign finances with other recent elections, including in 2006 when he ran unopposed. The comparison is unfair, he said.

“It’s riddled with misrepresentations and falsehoods,” Miller said. “But the main falsehood is that these people had vested interest in the investigation. None did except for two that give $15,000 and have been longtime friends of mine.” […]

Miller, in an interview with The Des Moines Register, noted that noted that the Republican Party of Iowa and its Eisenhower Club donated $850,000 to Findley. Additionally, Miller estimated that outside groups such as the American Future Fund have spent at least another $800,000 seeking to sway the race, mostly through independent ad buys.

I don’t know who Tom Miller’s friends are, but he can’t complain if major campaign donations create the appearance of big money trying to influence policy. Our system for funding campaigns creates all kinds of opportunities for legalized corruption. Does anyone think there would be bipartisan support in the Iowa legislature for a bill to help MidAmerican Energy rip off thousands of ratepayers if MidAmerican had not donated generously to legislators from both parties?

It is fair game for the National Institute on Money in State Politics to highlight how much money from potentially interested parties flowed into Miller’s campaign. Even if they are longtime personal friends, attorneys suing mortgage lenders, or working in firms that represent mortgage lenders, had good reason to curry favor with Miller last October.

Side note: if plaintiffs’ lawyers were looking for Miller to take a hard line on fraudulent mortgage practices or mandatory loan modifications, they may wish they could get their money back. The state attorneys general haven’t reached a final settlement with lenders yet, but preliminary reports suggest negotiators are not driving a hard bargain with the big banks. It’s disappointing that Miller took criminal penalties off the table and may end up going too easy on the lenders. You can’t pin that solely on Miller’s campaign funding, though. The Obama administration has failed to adequately address the foreclosure problems from the beginning, and has repeatedly shied away from punishing anyone in the financial sector for anything. The U.S. Justice Department announced a not-very-tough settlement with the 14 largest U.S. mortgage servicers last week.

In fairness to Miller, I think McNellis should have provided more background on the 2006 and 2002 Iowa attorney general races. The report notes,

Although it is typical for candidates to raise large sums of money in the month immediately preceding the election, Miller’s out-of-state donations in 2010 were a significant departure from his two previous campaigns, in terms of the amount of money he raised, where it came from, and when.

Miller raised $785,000 in 2010, more than double the $327,196 he raised for his 2006 and 2002 campaigns combined.

Miller’s 2010 campaign was unprecedented in the amount of contributions received from outside of Iowa: $497,000, or 63 percent of his 2010 total, came from out-of-state donors. This is a significant break from his previous two reelection campaigns, when less than one-tenth of his campaign funds came from outside of Iowa.

McNellis could have mentioned here that Miller ran for re-unopposed in 2006. His Republican rival in 2002 was so token that I didn’t even remember the guy’s name (for the record, it was State Representative Dave Millage of Bettendorf). Miller didn’t need to raise a lot of money for his previous two re-election campaigns.

It looks bad that so many of Miller’s donations came in after he announced the foreclosure investigation. I would add that his campaign seemed slow to get anything going last year. Make that unbelievably slow: Miller’s re-election effort raised less than $16,000 in the first reporting period, scheduled no public campaign events to my knowledge all spring and summer, and didn’t launch a campaign website until sometime after Labor Day. Miller didn’t start running television commercials until the middle of October, after his challenger had gone up on the air.

Meanwhile, Brenna Findley worked extremely hard and started bringing in big money early. She campaigned across the state and received more than 700 individual donations by mid-May 2010. She continued to outraise Miller as the campaign wore on. Having served as chief of staff for Representative Steve King probably helped, as did having Terry Branstad talk about her everywhere he went, but Findley put in tremendous effort–way more than any other Miller challenger had done.

I got a kick out of the Iowa GOP’s spin on yesterday’s report:

Casey Mills, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Iowa, noted that Miller had also accepted $95,000 in loans from two of his state employees. The loans were completely voluntary and were short-term to cover a period before other anticipated donations were deposited into the campaign account, Miller previously said.

“Unfortunately, this report suggests the questionable loans of last fall were not an isolated incident but instead part of a troubling pattern of how Miller funds his campaigns,” said Mills, the GOP spokesman. “Iowans are rightly suspicious and deserve straight answers from their Attorney General.”

While we’re on the subject of “troubling patterns,” Casey Mills, please tell us more about the largest chunk of Findley’s campaign cash. The Republican Party of Iowa and its Eisenhower Club transferred more than $800,000 to Findley’s campaign. That money came to the Iowa GOP from out of state: specifically, from the Republican State Leadership Committee, which raises funds from a large number of individuals and corporations.

Also, Iowans are “rightly suspicious and deserve straight answers” about the money the American Future Fund and the Progress Project spent against Miller in the closing weeks of the campaign. We have no idea where that funding came from. At least we can see who donated to Miller’s war chest and draw our own conclusions.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: At Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi mentions the ties between one of Miller’s largest donors and Goldman, Sachs.

And at the Naked Capitalism blog, Yves Smith lists examples of Miller’s “obvious soft touch toward banks in his role as lead negotiator in the 50 state attorney generals negotiation over foreclosure abuses.”

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