Exclusive: Ethics board cleared use of state building for SOTU response

The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board gave advance approval of Governor Kim Reynolds' plan to deliver a nationally-televised speech on behalf of Republicans from state government property.

Reynolds delivered the GOP response to President Joe Biden's State of the Union address from the terrace of the State Historical Building in downtown Des Moines. That part of the facility has been closed to the public all year due to renovations.

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs did not charge the governor's office for the space, which previously cost thousands of dollars to rent. However, documents Bleeding Heartland obtained through public records requests show the Kim Reynolds for Iowa campaign and the CNN television network covered some other costs associated with the State of the Union response.

Iowa law prohibits "the expenditure of public moneys for political purposes." But a few days before the March 1 speech, the ethics board's executive director Zach Goodrich assured the governor's senior legal counsel that based on his understanding of the facts, Reynolds "would not be in violation" of that code section if she spoke from the State Historical Building.


The Department of Cultural Affairs is in the process of revising State Historical Building rental fees. According to one wedding planning website, booking the grand terrace for a ten-hour event used to cost $2,500, not including catering or the venue's mandatory security and custodial fees.

Correspondence between state employees and CNN staff show the network's crew began delivering equipment needed for the shoot on the morning of February 28. In other words, the State of the Union response occupied the terrace for two full days.

Ordinary Iowans would have been unable to rent the terrace for any private event this year, at any price. However, the Department of Cultural Affairs' communications staffer Jeff Morgan told Bleeding Heartland, "During the renovations, a few other media outlets have filmed from the terrace for its views of the capitol and downtown skyline for educational or DCA-mission-related projects."

Television networks have paid to use the State Historical Building terrace in the past, while covering the Iowa caucuses. Why wasn't the governor's office or campaign charged a market-based rate for using the space? Morgan told me via email, "The state was proud to support this opportunity to showcase Iowa for a national audience and considered this an extension of our mission."

The terrace provided a perfect backdrop for Reynolds, who alluded to the setting in her remarks: "Behind me stands Iowa's capitol, where we display our state motto: Our liberties we prize, and our rights we will maintain."


Under a longstanding State Historical Building policy, state government agencies received a 20 percent discount for renting space at the facility. (The page outlining that policy was taken down sometime after Bleeding Heartland first covered this issue in March, but it's still accessible through the Wayback Machine.) It has not been standard practice for state government officials to use parts of the building for two days for free.

Why didn't the agency charge the governor's office the usual discounted rate for access to the terrace? According to Morgan, "The governor’s use of the terrace posed no additional costs to the state."

CNN was billed this year for some technology costs associated with the State of the Union response. In addition, the Kim Reynolds for Iowa committee was invoiced $3,304.03 to reimburse the Department of Cultural Affairs for catering, renting a tent and radiant propane heater, and labor costs. (The governor's campaign paid that bill in late March.)

Email correspondence indicates that the governor's public relations director Heather Nahas and Meg Witt of the Department of Cultural Affairs spent considerable time on phone calls or meetings to arrange the logistics and equipment rentals. But since they are already full-time state employees, that work didn't incur extra costs.

The governor's senior legal counsel Michael Boal told the ethics board's Goodrich in late February, "no public moneys will be expended to provide a site for the address."

As it happens, Goodrich would have okayed the planned speech even if it were expected to cost the state thousands of dollars.


The State of the Union response is much more like a political event than an official one. Leaders of the opposition party (rather than a nonpartisan organization like the National Governors Association) select the speakers. They choose someone perceived to be a strong messenger against the president's agenda. When U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy announced they had picked Reynolds, their news release was full of partisan slogans.

But Iowa law narrowly defines "political purpose." In a February 25 letter to Boal, intended to memorialize their conversations, Goodrich explained,

Iowa Code section 68A.505(1) prohibits the expenditure of public moneys for political purposes. A political purpose is defined in Iowa Code section 68A.102(19) as, “the express advocacy of a candidate or ballot issue.” Iowa Administrative Code rule 351-5.3 further defines political purpose as meaning, “to expressly advocate the nomination, election, or defeat of a candidate or to expressly advocate the passage or defeat of a ballot issue.” Furthermore, Iowa Code section 68A.505(2) states, in relevant part, “This section shall not be construed to limit the freedom of speech of officials or employees of the state..."

A response to the State of the Union Address does not qualify as a political purpose as defined above. The response will not be used to expressly advocate for any specific candidate or ballot issue. Rather, it is expected to promote certain policies and criticize others; such conduct is inherent to the everyday activities of the Governor of Iowa.

Goodrich added that Governor Tom Vilsack had delivered the Democratic response to President George W. Bush's radio addresses "on no fewer than four occasions."

Reynolds pushed numerous GOP talking points (not all of which were accurate) in her televised remarks. However, as you can see from watching the video enclosed below, or reading the transcript, the governor avoided any explicit calls to elect Republicans.

I don't consider this speech part of Reynolds' official duties. I suspect the governor's team also understood on some level that this was a political event, which was why the Kim Reynolds for Iowa campaign committee was billed for some of the expenses.

Nor do I think Vilsack's radio recordings are comparable to an event requiring significant staff time, equipment rentals, and so on.

But my opinion doesn't alter the legal landscape. The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board has jurisdiction to enforce Iowa Code Chapter 68A. Once Goodrich put it in writing that the speech was not a "political purpose," that's an ironclad defense for the governor's office against any accusation that Reynolds improperly used state resources while bashing the president.

After reviewing records about this episode, I sought to clarify some legal points with Goodrich. In the future, could Reynolds commandeer any public space in a state building to deliver a televised address, as long as the governor's office doesn't pay the usual rental fee for that space?

He responded via email in June, "I want to clarify that I did not opine on whether the actions at issue here were appropriate. Rather, I answered the question of whether use of the building was permissible under Iowa Code chapter 68A." Since Iowa is a "magic word" state,

For there to be express advocacy there needs to be explicit words that unambiguously tell people how to vote. I discussed this standard with the Governor's Office and was assured that such advocacy would not be included in the address. That is how I arrived at the conclusion that this did not qualify as a political purpose under 68A.

The comparison to Governor Vilsack's addresses was done in the context of determining whether a governor's address responding to a president of the opposing party constitutes a political purpose.

As for whether the speech cost the state any money, Goodrich confirmed that was not the relevant point, since his legal analysis "came down to the determination that the address did not qualify as a political purpose under 68A."

Regarding the governor's use of state-owned space without paying for it, that kind of question falls outside the ethics board's purview.

But, to your point about state employees potentially spending time on this matter, I was informed that the only state employees involved would be there voluntarily since it took place outside of work hours. I was further informed that any other public resources associated with the event would be those related to the routine operation of the building.

My letter only addressed the permissibility for this specific situation based on the facts therein. It should not be used as an endorsement for any activity one might believe is implicitly related.

Correspondence I obtained show Nahas, Witt, and other state employees (including Department of Cultural Affairs Director Chris Kramer and someone who works on the Iowa Communications Network) spent time during business hours on planning and logistics, such as coordinating with CNN and making sure the right kind of equipment was lined up.

I wondered whether it mattered, from the ethics board's perspective, whether state employees prepared for this event during their regular workday. Additionally, how could renting the terrace be part of "routine operation" of the State Historical Building when that area had been closed off for months due to construction? Goodrich replied,

I wasn't informed of the specifics regarding who in particular would be involved with the effort, nor about how much time would be spent. As far as the legal analysis goes, it doesn't change because it still isn't a political purpose. But I understand how this speech could easily be seen as coming right up to the line of what is permissible under 68A.

The issue of the building being closed to the public wasn't part of the query, so my letter didn't address that. It wouldn't change the legal conclusion but, again, I understand why one might question whether the Governor's choice to dedicate public resources to this effort is appropriate.

Final note: in March, I speculated that using state funds for the State of the Union response could raise questions about the governor's compliance with Iowa's "self-promotion law," if the Reynolds campaign later used video or audio clips from that speech in paid television, radio, or digital advertising. Since the speech doesn't appear to have cost the state any money, any self-promotion law concerns appear to be off the table.

Appendix 1: Full video of Governor Kim Reynolds' State of the Union response on March 1, 2022

Appendix 2: February 25 letter sent via email from Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board executive director Zach Goodrich to Governor Kim Reynolds' senior legal counsel Michael Boal

Top image: Screenshot of Governor Kim Reynolds during her State of the Union response.

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