What was already a difficult race for Democrats in Iowa Senate district 15 became virtually impossible on September 14, when a federal grand jury charged Leesa Marie Parkhill-Nieland with theft and Social Security fraud. Parkhill-Nieland is married to Dan Nieland, the Democratic candidate who will face two-term Republican State Representative Zach Nunn in November.
At an emergency meeting of the Jasper County Democratic Central Committee on September 17, Nieland admitted he knew his wife was facing a criminal investigation before seeking the nomination at a special convention last month.
When I contacted Nieland on September 15 to ask about the indictment, he said he stood "100 percent" behind his wife and passed along this statement from defense attorney Todd Lantz: "Leesa Parkhill- Nieland pleaded not guilty to all of the government's criminal charges. She adamantly denies the government's allegations and looks forward to the opportunity to defend herself before a jury." Nieland declined to answer my follow-up question: was he aware she was under investigation when he agreed to run in Senate district 15?
Let's be clear: Parkhill-Nieland must be presumed innocent. But Nieland will be a material witness in the case, which involves income his wife allegedly earned from the business the couple operate. Local Democrats should have been told a criminal investigation was underway before they decided to nominate Nieland last month. They had a credible alternative in Southeast Polk school board member Lori Slings.
David Dolmage reported for the Newton Daily News that Nieland gave an "emotional speech" to Jasper County activists on Monday night.
Nieland said he decided to leave party members in the dark after searching through the Department of Justice’s website, where he claimed he only saw information released regarding convictions, rather than indictments listed. Confident the information would remain under wraps until after the election, Nieland decided against informing party members about the indictment.
“You start thinking as a candidate, is it going to be made public?” Nieland said. “I was going to put my word on the line to save her reputation. It didn’t have to come out. If it didn’t have to impact her, it stays quiet until the court date next summer.”
On Monday, Nieland alternated between apologizing for his actions and shifting the blame to his opponent, Republican Zach Nunn.
“If anybody feels misguided, lied to, it was not my intent,” Nieland said. “It was my intent to run a strong campaign, to defeat this little ... to defeat Zach (Nunn) and to keep my wife out of the fray as much as possible.”
Give me a break. Knowing there was even a slight chance of an indictment, Nieland should have declined to stand for the nomination.
But it's inexcusable that Slings, who had campaigned successfully before, was passed over twice for non-viable male candidates. Taylor Van De Krol defeated her at the first special nominating convention in early August. Less than two weeks later, he dropped out for unspecified "personal reasons." Apparently he hadn't thought through his decision to run.
It's too late to get Nieland off the ballot for this year's general election. But political insiders can do us all a favor by learning the right lesson from this painful experience. Next time you face a choice like this one, nominate the capable woman who has run for office before.
UPDATE: According to Cindy Pollard, a Democratic activist who is Lori Slings' cousin, the Jasper County Democratic Central Committee voted 11 to 6 on September 19 not to ask Nieland to return an $11,000 contribution to his campaign. I don't understand that decision. I'm sure they could find better uses for those funds during the last month and a half of the campaign.
September 14 press release from the U.S. Attorney's office for the Southern District of Iowa:
Altoona Woman Charged with Social Security Fraud
DES MOINES, Iowa – On August 28, 2018, a federal grand jury charged Leesa Marie Parkhill-Nieland, age 47, of Altoona, with Social Security fraud, announced United States Attorney Marc Krickbaum. Parkhill-Nieland is charged with theft of government funds, Social Security fraud, and making a false statement to the Social Security Administration. Parkhill-Nieland is alleged to have received Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits from about December 2012 until about April 2018. According to the Indictment, during this time, Parkhill-Nieland was self-employed through two different businesses, Pine Hollow Stables and Coat of Many Colors. Parkhill-Nieland is alleged to have concealed and failed to disclose that employment from the Social Security Administration in order to continue to receive payments.
The defendant appeared in United States District Court in Des Moines on September 14, 2018. The public is reminded that an Indictment is merely an accusation, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless she is proven guilty.
This matter is being investigated by the Social Security Administration—Office of Inspector General. The case is being prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Iowa.