Questions remain on Iowa GOP couple's Saudi lobbying, political donations

Connie Schmett was registered as a foreign agent doing work on behalf of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia through September 2017, a new filing shows. The revelation explains why Schmett and her husband, Kim Schmett, recently disclosed to the federal government a number of donations to Iowa Republican candidates and political committees they had made since March, when their work as consultants for the Qorvis/MSLGROUP previously appeared to have ended.

Several other curiosities related to Connie Schmett’s political giving remain unexplained.

The Schmetts’ side work to undermine a law that would allow 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia was controversial, in part because they serve on influential state bodies. Kim Schmett is employed full time as chair of the Employment Appeal Board, while Connie Schmett holds positions on the Health Facilities Council and Cultural Trust Board of Trustees. Both were appointed by former Governor Terry Branstad.

After the Schmetts’ work as foreign agents gained widespread attention in Iowa last month, Governor Kim Reynolds called for changes in state law to ban public officials from working for foreign governments. She also said her campaign would give away a $100 contribution from the couple and remove them from a list of her county co-chairs. The Reynolds campaign later told me they planned to return the funds to the Schmetts (one 9/11 charity had rejected the donation).

ONE MYSTERY SOLVED

Kim Schmett made several donations after registering as a foreign agent in October 2016, but had not reported them (as required under the Foreign Agents Registration Act) until I sought comment on the matter earlier this fall. In subsequent amended filings, which Bleeding Heartland posted here, the Schmetts listed several donations from late 2016, along with some from the spring and summer of this year.

I found that puzzling, since Qorvis/MSLGROUP had listed Kim Schmett as a “terminated” foreign agent as of March 30, 2017 (see page 19 of this filing). Though that document did not name Connie Schmett as terminated, I assumed the omission had been an oversight, since a search of this database on the U.S. Department of Justice website showed both Schmetts as terminated on March 30.

However, the latest supplemental statement from Qorvis/MSLGROUP, covering the six-month period from April through September 2017, listed a “Connie Schmidt” among agents terminated on September 30.

No one named Connie Schmidt has ever been a registered foreign agent, according to the government database.

Jonathan Nicholas, director of finance for Qorvis/MSLGROUP, confirmed by e-mail last week that Connie Schmidt was in fact Connie Schmett. Following my inquiry, he said the firm had corrected its FARA submission. Nicholas did not answer further questions, such as whether Connie Schmett had done any work for them during the most recent reporting period. The supplemental statement listed no payments to Schmett & Associates between April 1 and September 30. MSLGROUP had paid the Clive-based consulting firm $101,500 earlier in the year (see page 45).

The amended filing is now available online. Page 1 notes that “the reference to Connie Schmidt should have read Connie Schmett.” Page 3 lists additional payments including $2,000 to Schmett & Associates for “communications services.”

A representative from the U.S. DOJ press office declined last week to explain why the FARA database was still providing an incorrect termination date for Connie Schmett. The error has since been fixed. At this writing, a search here for “terminated short form registrants” produces the right dates for both Schmetts.

It’s not clear whether Connie Schmett’s most recent work was related to undermining the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, the primary focus of the Saudi lobbying effort. My attempts to reach the Schmetts by phone have been unsuccessful.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

I am still seeking answers to some questions that arose while researching the newly-disclosed contributions by the Schmetts.

Will Iowa candidates and political committees be required to amend disclosure reports to reflect that donations from “Connie Russell” came from Connie Schmett?

Public records reveal that while Connie Schmett has been using that name in her professional and political life for many years, she has made most of her political contributions since 2003 under the name Connie Russell. That was her surname during her first marriage, which ended in 1992.

Iowa law requires disclosure of donors’ “name and mailing address,” without specifying that the contributor must provide his or her legal name. Megan Tooker, executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, told me on December 10 that she and the board members had not determined whether to instruct campaigns and political committees that have received donations from “Connie Russell” to amend past filings. UPDATE: Tooker informed me on December 15 that IECDB staff are taking steps to verify Connie Schmett’s legal name, after which “our disclosure statements will be amended as necessary.”

Those records should be revised so that a search for Connie Schmett’s donation history turns up all of her contributions. Moreover, Iowa Code should be amended to require the use of a legal name for political giving. Campaign disclosure rules are supposed to guarantee transparency. Contributing under a name no one associates with you subverts that goal, especially when the donor is a public figure. Campaigns cannot investigate information from every paper check or online donation form to ensure all details are accurate. The burden should be on the donor to provide the legal name.

Side note: Tooker confirmed that Connie Schmett has revised her personal financial disclosure forms, required annually for certain state officials, to mention her consulting work during 2015 and 2016. She also submitted a disclosure form covering 2013, which she had failed to do after joining the Health Facilities Council. The Associated Press first reported Schmett’s incomplete personal financial disclosures.

Was there a second donation from the Schmetts to the Kim Reynolds campaign?

In their amended FARA filings, Kim Schmett reported giving $100 to the Reynolds campaign on May 15, while Connie Schmett reported giving $150 on August 28. Reynolds campaign officials say they only have a record of the first donation. I have been unable to determine the source of the discrepancy.

MARCH 2018 UPDATE: Documents provided in response to a records request (see pages 4 and 5) indicate that Connie Schmett wrote a check to the Reynolds campaign, but that check “was never cashed.”

Will Senator Joni Ernst return a donation from Connie Schmett?

Connie Schmett reported giving Joni Ernst $100 on May 25. I could not find a record of any donation from Connie Schmett or Connie Russell (or Kim Schmett, for that matter) on the second-quarter filings from Ernst’s campaign committee or political action committee.

Staff for Ernst have not responded to my inquiries. I wonder whether this gift could have been in the form of unitemized small purchases, like tickets to the annual “Roast and Ride” fundraiser.

Will Iowa House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow return donations from Connie Schmett?

Records show Connie Schmett gave $125 to Hagenow’s campaign in June 2016, and “Connie Russell” gave his campaign $50 in October of that year, after she had registered as a foreign agent. Hagenow has not responded to my repeated inquiries about whether he will return either of those donations.

Will U.S. Representative David Young return a donation from Kim Schmett?

Kim Schmett gave Young’s campaign $100 in October 2016, after registering as a foreign agent. Staff for Young, who represents Iowa’s third Congressional district, have not answered my question about that donation.

Will the Republican Party of Iowa return donations from the Schmetts?

Kim Schmett gave $250 to the Iowa GOP in April of this year. “Connie Russell” gave the state party $1,300 the following month. I have not heard back on whether the Republican Party intends to return the money.

Should the Schmetts have disclosed their increase in compensation for this work?

When registering as foreign agents, both Connie Schmett and Kim Schmett reported expected fees of $25,000 from Qorvis/MSLGROUP. But Schmett & Associates later received $101,500 for that work. (Kim Schmett declined to specify how much time he and his wife had devoted to this client.)

Federal regulations enforcing FARA state that “Any change affecting the information furnished with respect to the nature of the services rendered by the person filing the statement, or the compensation he receives, shall require the filing of a new short form registration statement within 10 days after the occurrence of such change.”

I repeatedly sought comment from the U.S. DOJ on whether that requirement applied to the Schmetts. Eventually, a press officer informed me that “as a general matter” the department “does not discuss the registration requirements of specific entities under FARA.”

I will update this post as needed.

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