Iowa concealed COVID-19 testing help for well-connected firms

State officials deployed “strike teams” involving the Iowa National Guard to more businesses last year than previously acknowledged.

Records the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH) released on April 26 show seventeen workplaces received COVID-19 testing assistance through a strike team. The agency had stated in January that only ten workplaces (operated by nine companies) had strike team visits. Several newly-disclosed events benefited businesses linked to Governor Kim Reynolds’ major campaign donors.

Iowa used the strike teams mostly during the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 testing supplies were scarce. However, a strike team was sent to Iowa Select Farms administrative headquarters in mid-July, more than five weeks after the state had stopped providing testing help to other business. That company’s owners are Reynolds’ largest campaign contributors.

The governor asserted at a January news conference that the state had facilitated coronavirus testing for more than 60 companies, saying no firm was denied assistance. The newly-released records show nineteen businesses received testing kits from the state, and another nineteen were directed to a nearby Test Iowa site where their employees could schedule appointments.

The public health department’s spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand has not explained why she provided incomplete information about the strike team program in January. Nor has she clarified what criteria state officials used to determine which companies received which kind of testing assistance.

The governor’s spokesperson Pat Garrett did not respond to any of Bleeding Heartland’s emails on this subject. Reynolds walked away when I tried to ask her about the strike team decisions at a media gaggle on April 28.

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Exclusive: Iowa spent CARES Act funds on governor's office software switch

UPDATE: Weeks after publication, state officials said this payment had been “inaccurately coded to the federal CARES program,” which was “anticipated” to cover this expense but did not. They said the database would be corrected to reflect the coding error. More details are at the end of this post. Original text follows.

Iowa’s Office of Chief Information Officer spent $39,512 in federal COVID-19 relief funds on a project to migrate computers in Governor Kim Reynolds’ office from Google suite to Microsoft Office 365.

Public databases showing expenditures from Iowa’s Coronavirus Relief Fund do not indicate the governor’s office was the beneficiary of that November payment from OCIO to the vendor Insight Public Sector for unspecified “IT Outside Services.” Documents obtained through public records requests show the money covered the cost of the Google to Office 365 migration.

The governor’s office reimbursed OCIO for that expense in mid-December, days after the Reynolds administration was forced to backpedal on other COVID-19 funds spent on computer technology. Earlier the same month, Bleeding Heartland had sought records related to goods and services OCIO purchased on behalf of the governor’s office using money from the Coronavirus Relief Fund. 

The governor’s spokesperson Pat Garrett has not replied to inquiries about who authorized the initial spending on switching from Google to Office 365 or what funding source eventually covered the cost.

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Exclusive: Payment scheme concealed CARES Act funds for governor's staff

Federal funds used to cover salaries and benefits for Governor Kim Reynolds’ staffers were routed through the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, rather than going directly to the governor’s office.

Because of the unique arrangement, state agencies’ databases and published reports on expenditures from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act do not reveal that any funding supported the governor’s office. Instead, some show allocations from Iowa’s Coronavirus Relief Fund to Homeland Security, from which $448,449 was spent on “COVID Staffing” or “State Government COVID Staffing.”

That’s the exact dollar amount Reynolds approved to pay permanent employees on her staff for part of their work during the last three and a half months of the 2020 fiscal year. Other agencies that had staff working on the pandemic response from the State Emergency Operations Center, such as the Iowa Department of Public Health, did not receive CARES Act funding through the same indirect route.

The governor’s communications director Pat Garrett and chief of staff Sara Craig Gongol did not respond to six inquiries over a three-week period about how these payments were made and recorded.

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Five unanswered questions about Iowa governor's staff salary payments

Governor Kim Reynolds has defended her decision to use nearly $450,000 in federal funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to pay salaries and benefits for her permanent staffers.

But her comments at a September 16 news conference, along with information her staff provided to some reporters afterwards, left several salient questions unanswered.

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Exclusive: Iowa governor used CARES Act funds to pay staff salaries

Governor Kim Reynolds directed that nearly $450,000 in federal funding the state of Iowa received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act be used to cover salaries and benefits for staff working in her office.

According to documents Bleeding Heartland obtained from the Iowa Department of Management through public records requests, the funds will cover more than 60 percent of the compensation for 21 employees from March 14 through June 30, 2020.

Reynolds has not disclosed that she allocated funds for that purpose, and reports produced by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency have not mentioned any CARES Act funding received by the governor’s office. Nor do any such disbursements appear on a database showing thousands of state government expenditures under the CARES Act.

The governor’s communications director Pat Garrett did not respond to four requests for comment over a two-week period.

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