Iowa board approves formal probe of Heritage Action lobbying

The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board voted on May 26 to authorize a formal staff investigation of possible undisclosed lobbying of Governor Kim Reynolds’ office by the conservative group Heritage Action for America.

The board’s executive director and legal counsel Mike Marshall had been informally investigating the matter after Mother Jones published video of Heritage Action’s executive director bragging about helping to write voter suppression laws in Iowa and other states. Jessica Anderson told donors at a private meeting in April that her group had “worked quietly” with Iowa lawmakers to help draft and support a new election bill, getting it passed with “little fanfare.” But the Washington, DC based organization, which is affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, hadn’t registered a position on the bill or filed reports required of those who lobby state government.

FORMAL INVESTIGATION HAS SUBPOENA POWER

The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board is charged with enforcing state laws on lobbying the executive branch. Earlier this month, Marshall asked Anderson to “disclose the nature and extent of Heritage Action’s communications with any state agency or statewide elected official in the past year relating to legislation, administrative rules, or executive orders.” He also requested relevant records from the governor’s office.

The six ethics board members discussed the investigation in closed session during their May 26 meeting, after which board chair James Albert summarized their deliberations in a Zoom meeting open to the public. He said Marshall had informed the board that “they have seen no evidence of any lobbying of the governor’s office” and “no evidence that Heritage Action encouraged the governor to sign this bill.”

Rather, documents obtained so far indicate “Heritage Action asked the governor’s office to include them in announcing the bill and marketing the bill.” He said Marshall told them the governor’s office “has been very cooperative.” Nevertheless, the legal counsel asked the board to authorize a full investigation, which would include subpoena power, if needed, “to track down any other evidence” of wrongdoing that falls within the board’s jurisdiction.

Albert said Marshall told the board he didn’t think he would need to issue subpoenas, since the governor’s office has cooperated fully so far.

Board members did not discuss the matter further before voting 4-2 to authorize the investigation. Albert, who is a Republican, supported the motion, along with the two Democrats (Elaine Olson and John Walsh) and independent Jonathan Roos. Republicans Carole Tillotson and Mary Rueter voted no.

Following the meeting, I sought clarification from Tillotson and Rueter on their thinking. Were they generally opposed to this kind of investigation, or did they believe Marshall had already turned up enough evidence to rule out illegal lobbying? Rueter did not respond to the email, and Tillotson replied that she didn’t feel it would be appropriate to comment.

GROUP DENIES UNDISCLOSED LOBBYING

In addressing the leaked video, which received national media attention, Heritage Action has tried to have it both ways. On the one hand, the group denies engaging in any lobbying without proper disclosure. On the other hand, it stands behind Anderson’s assertion that the group influenced Iowa’s election law.

Replying to Marshall on May 18, Heritage Action’s chief legal officer Chris Byrnes wrote that the group’s staff “have had no communications” with Iowa legislators this year. However, he said Heritage Action had sent materials about the proposed election changes to “thousands of our grassroots supporters across Iowa,” who “subsequently engaged with their legislators as citizen advocates” advocating for the policies.

Anderson had told Heritage donors,

“Iowa is the first state that we got to work in, and we did it quickly and we did it quietly,” Anderson said. “We worked quietly with the Iowa state legislature. We got the best practices to them. We helped draft the bills. We made sure activists were calling the state legislators, getting support, showing up at their public hearings, giving testimony…Little fanfare. Honestly, nobody even noticed. My team looked at each other and we’re like, ‘It can’t be that easy.’”

Byrnes reinforced that version of events in his letter to Marshall: “While no Heritage Action employee or a representative paid to act on its behalf directly engaged with the Iowa Legislature, we are proud to know that our grassroots network answered the call to express their views on this topic of public importance, and that their efforts helped shape legislation that is now law.”

State Representative Bobby Kaufmann, who helped write the bill and guided it through the Iowa House, has vehemently denied that any Iowans suggested specific language that ended up in the bill. State Senator Roby Smith, the lead author and floor manager in the upper chamber, said in a written statement that the Heritage Foundation “had no part in the drafting” the bill.

Regarding Heritage Action’s contacts with the executive branch, which is in the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board’s purview, Byrnes told Marshall that the group’s staff discussed a “strategy to highlight the provisions of the new election integrity law once enacted” in a March conference call with Reynolds’ communications staff. Heritage Action followed up in April by asking the governor’s staff whether Reynolds would record a video about the new election law.

Records the governor’s senior legal counsel Michael Boal provided to Marshall support that characterization. They show Heritage Action was eager to include a quote from Reynolds in its statement praising the new law, and later proposed a script for the governor to use on camera (enclosed below). That script touted the “leadership” and “partnership” offered by Heritage and echoed the narrative Anderson had provided to donors. Excerpt:

Governors and legislators around the country have no better ally in this fight than Heritage. They have shared best practices for safeguarding elections with key policymakers and engaged with voters to increase public awareness of these reforms. Their nationwide network of Sentinels has provided crucial support to officials throughout the legislative process, further amplifying the need for these common-sense reforms.

The emails from governor’s office, which Marshall made available to Bleeding Heartland, indicate that Reynolds’ staff did not give Heritage Action a quote to use in the group’s March 8 news release. Boal told Marshall that the two staff members on the March 4 call with Heritage Action “both separately described to me that the call was exclusively to assist in promoting Senate File 413 once signed by the Governor. It was not to encourage, make the case, or otherwise urge the Governor to sign the bill.”

Nor did Reynolds record the video Heritage Action was hoping for, to validate its supposed role in enacting manifold new restrictions on voting in Iowa. The governor’s staff did not respond to that request, according to Boal.

COMPLAINTS STILL PENDING WITH IOWA HOUSE COMMITTEE

The Iowa House and Senate Ethics committees have jurisdiction to enforce the legislature’s lobbying rules. On May 18, House Minority Leader Todd Prichard’s filed ethics complaints regarding conduct by Anderson and Hans von Spakovsky, manager of the Heritage Foundation’s Election Reform Initiative. Prichard cited Anderson’s comments during her presentation to Heritage donors and asserted that the group’s representatives failed to register as lobbyists in Iowa and failed to declare Heritage’s position on Senate File 413 prior to advocating for its passage.

The House Ethics Committee, comprised of three state representatives from each party, does not yet have a meeting scheduled to hear these complaints.

In the last decade or two, the Iowa legislature’s ethics committees have not embarked on thorough independent investigations of matters brought before them. Given the denials from Kaufmann and Smith, and Heritage Action’s assertion that only its grassroots supporters had any contact with state lawmakers, Prichard’s complaints will likely be dismissed with “little fanfare,” as Anderson might say.


Appendix 1: Heritage Action’s response to Mike Marshall’s request for information about lobbying state government on Iowa’s new election law

Appendix 2: Script proposed by Heritage Action for Governor Kim Reynolds to recite in a video touting the group’s work on the election law. Reynolds did not record the video.

Hi, I’m Kim Reynolds, governor of the great state of Iowa.

After the 2020 election, conservative governors around the country saw that there were opportunities to improve the electoral processes of their states. Americans have started to doubt the security of elections and the validity of their vote. Governors and legislators around the country are now being faced with the need to restore voters’ confidence at the ballot box.

In Iowa, we recognized this need and immediately took action to prevent future uncertainty around elections in the Hawkeye State. In March, I was proud to sign into law legislation that strengthens election safeguards, ensures accurate voter rolls, and protects the vote of each Iowan. We were the first state this year to enact these reforms, and thanks to the work of Heritage Action, I am confident that we have laid the groundwork for other states to take on this challenge.

Governors and legislators around the country have no better ally in this fight than Heritage. They have shared best practices for safeguarding elections with key policymakers and engaged with voters to increase public awareness of these reforms. Their nationwide network of Sentinels has provided crucial support to officials throughout the legislative process, further amplifying the need for these common-sense reforms.

As state leaders prepare to advance similar election integrity measures, Heritage is ready to engage, offering its resources as a partner in this ongoing campaign whose goal is one that I, and millions of Americans, support: to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.

Because of this partnership, I am confident that our successes in Iowa will be replicated throughout the country, ensuring that citizens can have confidence in the integrity of their vote in any election. Thank you, Heritage Action, for your leadership in this fight.

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