Reminder: State employees can't boost the Reynolds/Gregg campaign at work

Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend instructed all her agency's employees today "to be mindful of state and federal guidelines regarding prohibitions of participation in political activities while on state time or using state assets."

The action followed Bleeding Heartland's inquiry about a September 29 e-mail from an operations manager to more than 60 Iowa Workforce Development colleagues, recruiting volunteers for the Kim Reynolds/Adam Gregg campaign under the subject heading, "A Message from Governor Reynolds' Office."

State law prohibits using "public moneys for political purposes." Administrative rules written to implement that portion of the Iowa Code forbid public employees from using public resources "to expressly advocate the nomination, election, or defeat of a candidate," or "to solicit votes, engage in campaign work."

Operations manager Jeova Flores-Alvarez used his Iowa Workforce Development account to send this message during regular office hours on September 29. The contents appeared to be copied from a e-mail sent by Matt Leopold, the Reynolds/Gregg campaign's political director. Leopold was seeking volunteers to attend a campaign event, walk in a parade, make phone calls asking voters to back the Reynolds/Gregg ticket, or write a letter to the editor supporting Reynolds administration policies.

Responding to Bleeding Heartland's inquiry about this incident, "an investigation was conducted," Iowa Workforce Development's communications director Cory Kelly told me by e-mail this afternoon. "In response to the findings of that investigation, Director Townsend sent a message to all employees calling out the email as inappropriate and reminding them to be mindful of state and federal guidelines regarding prohibitions of participation in political activities while on state time or using state assets."

Kelly described Flores-Alvarez as "a new, low-level manager who made a poor decision when he sent that message. It has since been retracted, he has apologized for his mistake, and steps are being taken to determine the appropriate course of action from a personnel stand point." Kelly said the operations manager "acted independently without direction or encouragement from anyone representing the Reynolds/Gregg campaign or Iowa Workforce Development senior leadership."

I asked Leopold whether anyone representing the Reynolds/Gregg campaign or the governor's office had encouraged or directed state officials to circulate campaign appeals using state e-mail during regular work hours. The campaign's communications director Pat Garrett responded with an "unequivocal no."

Is anyone from the campaign sharing information with the governor's office about which state employees have volunteered in any capacity? Another "unequivocal no" from Garrett.

What would the campaign say to reassure state employees who might be concerned that their continued employment and career advancement depend on helping to elect Reynolds and Gregg? Garrett replied, "the campaign and state government are two totally different entities, so of course a persons involvement in one has no bearing on the other. If someone wants to volunteer for the campaign, it's of no consequence to us where they work."

In a rare response to one of my requests for comment, the governor's communications director Brenna Smith said, "Any state employee is welcome to volunteer on any campaign of their choice on their own time without any consequence to employment or career advancement." She confirmed that no one from the Reynolds/Gregg campaign has told anyone on the governor's staff which state employees have volunteered.

I asked because while some governors hire "wonks" to run the office and "hacks" to run the campaign, Reynolds picked "hacks" for both roles. Her Chief of Staff Jake Ketzner and Deputy Chief of Staff Tim Albrecht are both primarily known as Republican campaign veterans, rather than for any policy work they may have done on former Governor Terry Branstad's staff. Both Ketzner and Albrecht held important jobs on the 2010 Branstad/Reynolds campaign. Ketzner ran Representative Steve King's 2012 re-election bid against former First Lady Christie Vilsack and managed the Branstad/Reynolds campaign during the 2014 cycle.

Statements from Reynolds staffers or the governor herself often have a "campaign war room" feel, as seen most recently in comments on a health care bill pending in the U.S. Senate and a short-term borrowing proposal floated by Iowa's state treasurer.

Bleeding Heartland welcomes tips about any other attempts by state employees to promote any political campaign during work time or using public resources.

Final note: Under the Hatch Act, federal employees may not "engage in political activity while on duty or in the workplace" or "send or forward partisan political emails to others while on duty or in the workplace." According to the State of Iowa Employee Handbook, "An employee working in connection with a program financed in whole or in part by federal funds may be covered by the provisions of the federal Hatch Act." Some Iowa Workforce Development programs receive federal grants or other federal funding, but I don't know whether an operations manager for that agency would be covered by the Hatch Act.

UPDATE: A reader asked whether retired faculty from Iowa's public universities can use their .edu accounts for political activism. To my knowledge, the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board has never issued an opinion on that matter. I would strongly discourage even retired people from using university-based e-mail accounts to promote candidates or campaigns. Although such actions are unlikely to draw scrutiny, because they do not involve expenditure of public funds or use of office time, the correspondence could be subject to public records requests. Creating a separate e-mail account for political activities is easy and costs nothing.

  • Thank you

    Thank you for your focus on these state level issues. As local news outlets shrink their reporting staff or get bought out by right leaning corporations like Sinclair it is obvious that Republican leaders assume they won't be held accountable for their actions. It is very instructive how a simple request for public information can force accountability. We need more citizens doing this as a matter of civic responsibility. You are an example for us all.

    • thank you

      and please give me a heads up if you are aware of a story that deserves coverage. I couldn't have written this story without a tip from a reader.

  • Another thank you

    Your good work is appreciated!

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