Iowa political donors must now provide their legal surnames

Iowans must provide their legal surnames when making monetary or in-kind political donations, under a law Governor Kim Reynolds signed this week. The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board suggested the change after Bleeding Heartland uncovered more than 20 donations Connie Schmett had made to campaigns and committees under the name Connie Russell.

Iowa Code 68A has long required political committees to disclose the name and mailing address of each person who has contributed at least $25. Campaigns typically report the name and address that was printed on a check or supplied by a donor contributing online.

Kim Schmett and Connie Schmett made news last November when the Associated Press publicized their work as registered foreign agents on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Of the eight Iowans retained to lobby for a change in federal law, only the Schmetts held public positions as members of influential state boards. For that reason, Reynolds directed the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board to look into whether the lobbying (for which the Schmetts earned $101,500) violated any state laws.

My questions about Kim Schmett's political donations prompted the Schmetts to file additional paperwork to comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act. While examining those documents, I realized that over the past 15 years, Connie Schmett primarily donated to political causes as Connie Russell, even though she had changed her name to Schmett upon her remarriage during the 1990s.

Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board executive director Megan Tooker added that anomaly to the list of conduct the board was reviewing. At a January meeting, board members discussed at length whether Schmett had broken the law and should be directed to stop making political contributions under her previous married name. They determined she had not intended to evade disclosure requirements when writing checks from an account regularly used for household expenses. Moreover, while federal law specifically forbids the use of a false name on a political contribution, Iowa Code merely prohibits donors from making "a contribution or expenditure in the name of another person."

After much debate, board members agreed Schmett had not violated that law. But they also felt that ideally, Iowans should be required to donate under their legal names. Doing otherwise would subvert the purpose of campaign finance disclosure rules.

Tooker had already submitted a draft bill to the state legislature, making technical code changes to reflect the reality that candidates and political committees now file all reports online. The original "clean-up bill" did not include any language about donors' names.

Soon after the ethics board completed its investigation of the Schmetts, staff recommended a new section, stating that a "person making a contribution in excess of twenty-five dollars shall provide the person’s name and address to the candidate or committee receiving the contribution." Lawmakers agreed to incorporate that language, which further stipulated that a donation "made using a fictitious name" is illegal, and defined a fictitious name as one that "does not include the individual's legal surname at the time of the contribution or expenditure." According to Democratic State Senator Pam Jochum, who served on the subcommittee that considered this bill, the provision was presented as a response to the Connie Schmett controversy.

The amended Senate File 2256 passed the Senate State Government Committee and the full Senate unanimously in February. The following month, House members approved the bill 100 to 0. Reynolds signed it on April 2, along with a batch of uncontroversial bills.

Though only a small fraction of Americans occasionally support candidates monetarily, those who regularly vote or follow government affairs--which probably includes most Bleeding Heartland readers--are "much more likely to make political donations." So word to the wise: make all gifts to campaigns with a check or credit card that shows your current legal surname, not some name by which you used to be known.

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