Terry Branstad's philosophy of second chances

Governor Terry Branstad’s office released a long list of nominees to state boards and commissions yesterday. I’ve posted the full list after the jump. As he’s done during the past three years, the governor tapped several former state legislators or onetime Republican candidates for the Iowa House or Senate. The latest batch of appointees includes former GOP State Representative Lance Horbach for the State Judicial Nominating Commission, former GOP State Representative Jamie Van Fossen for the Public Employment Relations Board, and former GOP State Senator John Putney for the State Transportation Commission.

Branstad also re-appointed former GOP State Senator Jeff Lamberti to the Racing and Gaming Commission. I’m not surprised; the governor has expressed his confidence in him many times, even immediately after Lamberti’s drunk driving arrest in May 2012. A few weeks later, Lamberti pled guilty to driving while intoxicated, after which his colleagues elected him chairman of the Racing and Gaming Commission.

Several Iowa lawmakers in both parties have been caught driving after drinking too much alcohol. Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds was arrested for drunk driving twice while serving as a county treasurer. Arguably, Lamberti’s lapse in judgment is no impediment to leading one of the most powerful state commissions, which will soon make a high-profile decision on granting licenses to two new casino projects.

At the same time, it’s striking that Branstad, so committed to a continuing role in public life for Lamberti, so committed to seeing Reynolds succeed him as governor, is also determined to prevent tens of thousands of Iowans from ever participating in politics at the most basic level for a U.S. citizen. Since he signed an executive order making Iowa one of the most restrictive states for felon voting, only about 40 people have managed to regain their voting rights out of an estimated “25,000 offenders who finished their sentences for felonies or aggravated misdemeanors” since January 2011. Branstad’s policy affects mostly non-violent criminals. Non-white Iowans are more likely to be permanently disenfranchised, since Iowa is the worst state for racial disparities in marijuana arrests.

Branstad recently defended his policy on these terms: “At least somebody that commits an infamous crime such as a felony ought to pay the court costs and the fine associated with that crime before they expect to get their rights restored.” The governor knows perfectly well that most ex-felons are lucky to find a job that covers essentials like food and housing. Repaying thousands of dollars in court costs is not realistic for most of these people. Moreover, “infamous” crimes can include stealing a vending machine as a teenager. Denying thousands of Iowans a real chance to exercise their right to vote is a scandal, especially for a governor so forgiving of serious mistakes made by certain well-connected Republicans.

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Pay market rate for use of a donor's condo

Thursday’s Des Moines Register contains a lengthy report on Governor Chet Culver’s recent vacation stay at a Florida condominium owned by Bill Knapp, a leading donor to Democrats in Iowa.

Knapp has been a friend to the Culver family for decades and “was the biggest individual contributor to Culver’s gubernatorial campaign in 2006, donating $112,500.”

The article quotes Knapp as saying Culver pays $1,000 per week in advance when his family stays at the condo. It then quotes a real estate broker in Florida as estimating a comparable condo would rent for $2,700 per week.

Charlie Smithson, executive director of the Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board, said he didn’t have enough information to say whether Knapp is a restricted donor or whether ethics rules were broken. “Ultimately, that’s the board’s decision to make,” Smithson said.

Smithson said no one has complained about the condo deal, but the board would have to look into it if someone did.

I doubt there will be any formal complaint regarding this issue, because the Register also reports that State Representative John Putney, a Republican and personal friend to Knapp, stayed at the condo during this year’s legislative session as well.

Unlike Culver, Putney did not pay up front for the use of the condo. Instead, he says that he treated members of the Knapp family to expensive dinners (costing about $600 per evening) in exchange for the use of the condo.

The Register quotes Putney as saying Knapp “has never asked me for one thing legislatively,” and quotes Knapp as saying he doesn’t ask Culver for anything or offer him gifts.

Although it’s natural to stay at the home of a close family friend, it would be prudent for elected officials or appointees to pay market rates for those vacation stays, so as to avoid any appearance of impropriety–especially when the owner of the vacation home is a large campaign donor.

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