Exclusive: Governor approved CARES Act spending on office tech upgrades

Governor Kim Reynolds approved plans last year to spend federal COVID-19 relief funds to upgrade the technology in her conference room, state records show.

The Office of Chief Information Officer (OCIO) paid vendor AVI Systems $67,543.48 in December for unspecified “IT Equipment and Software” and “IT Outside Services.” Published reports and searchable databases do not reveal that those purchases benefited the governor’s office. But documents Bleeding Heartland obtained through public records requests indicate that the spending covered new audio and video equipment installed in the Robert Ray Conference Room, which is part of the governor’s office suite.

Records also show the payments were supposed to come out of Iowa’s Coronavirus Relief Fund, a pot of federal money established under the March 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

OCIO may have tapped a different funding source later to cover the conference room upgrade, as happened with a $39,512 project to migrate the governor’s office computers from Google suite to Microsoft Office 365 last year. Entries on the state’s online checkbook, totaling $67,543.48 to AVI Systems on the same December dates, do not mention the Coronavirus Relief Fund.

The governor’s spokesperson Pat Garrett ignored six inquiries over a two-week period. OCIO’s public information officer Gloria Van Rees also did not respond to eight messages during the same time frame seeking to clarify what funding stream paid for the conference room upgrades, and whether the governor’s office reimbursed OCIO for the payments to AVI Systems, as happened following the Office 365 migration.

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Iowa Republicans have abandoned executive branch oversight

Governor Kim Reynolds has been lucky at key points in her political career. Terry Branstad passed over more experienced contenders to select her as his 2010 running mate, allowing a little-known first-term state senator to become a statewide elected official. Six years later, Donald Trump won the presidency and named Branstad as an ambassador, setting Reynolds up to become governor without having to win a GOP primary first.

Most important, Reynolds has enjoyed a Republican trifecta her entire four years as governor. Not only has she been able to sign much of her wish list into law, she has not needed to worry that state lawmakers would closely scrutinize her administration’s work or handling of public funds.

During the legislative session that wrapped up last month, the GOP-controlled House and Senate rejected every attempt to make the governor’s spending decisions more transparent. They declined to hold even one hearing about questionable uses of federal COVID-19 relief funds or practices at state agencies that disadvantaged thousands of Iowans.

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"Out of whack": Rob Sand criticizes Terrace Hill fence

State Auditor Rob Sand contends that spending $400,000 to construct permanent fencing around Governor Kim Reynolds’ official residence reflects “out of whack” priorities favoring “insiders” over “outsiders.”

Sand regularly answers commenter questions during live videos posted on his political Facebook page. During his June 1 “Transparency Tuesday” session, one person asked, “how about that governor’s fence?” Beginning around the 8:15 mark, Sand replied,

My transcript:

Yeah, how about that governor’s fence. If you missed this, Jean’s comment is about the $400,000 that’s getting spent on a fence at Terrace Hill.

Threats should be taken seriously, and the governor has seen threats, but so did Governor Branstad. So did Governor Culver. So did Governor Vilsack. They didn’t build a fence.

And in the meantime, you know, year after year after year, we’ve seen a lot of violence in Iowa’s correctional facilities, which could have been fixed in a variety of ways, depending on who you ask. But we didn’t see much action. Until finally now, that two correctional officers actually got murdered, now they decided to provide additional funding.

So it’s just, to me, it’s a question of priorities and insiders versus outsiders. $400,000 for protection because of some threats that were not uncommon, versus years of assaults that essentially got nothing until people died.

Priorities are out of whack for who that’s serving.

A little later in the video, Sand agreed with a different commenter who characterized the Terrace Hill fence as “ridiculous.”

The Iowa Department of Public Safety approved plans to construct permanent fencing around the governor’s residence sometime during the summer of 2020, public records show. I have not been able to determine whether Reynolds or anyone on her staff advocated for beefed-up security. Public safety officials denied the decision was linked to protests or demonstrations occurring near Terrace Hill and said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security had recommended perimeter fencing for years.

Sand’s comments during the June 1 video were not a one-off. A few days earlier, he drew the same comparison on his political Twitter feed.

In that Twitter thread, Sand linked to a recent Des Moines Register article by Daniel Lathrop, “Iowa prison staffing levels before Anamosa killings were near their lowest level in at least 30 years.”

Two decades of budget cuts left the people who guard Iowa’s prisons understaffed and overmatched by a growing prison population, a Des Moines Register investigation found. The issue is getting attention after the March slaying of two employees at the Anamosa prison, allegedly by a pair of prisoners.

The Register found that Iowa’s Department of Corrections in 2020 had:

-Close to the lowest number of correctional officers guarding its prisons in at least 30 years.

-Substantially fewer correctional officers working at eight of its nine prisons than it did five, 10 and 20 years earlier.

-A ratio of prisoners to correctional officers that had risen above the national average.

The Republican-controlled Iowa House and Senate recently approved a $20 million increase to the corrections budget for the next fiscal year. But Sand pointed out that happened only after two correctional officers were murdered, allegedly by an incarcerated person.

Reporters for the Cedar Rapids Gazette and KCRG-TV obtained public records in April showing that Iowa’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the Iowa Department of Corrections last year for workplace violations at the Anamosa facility. Inspectors noted a lack of “adequate and reliable means of communication for employees to summon assistance during violent attacks or calls for emergency aid,” and not enough employees continually available to respond to such emergencies.

Sand is widely seen as likely to challenge Reynolds in 2022. He recently ruled out seeking any federal office next year but acknowledged he’s still considering running for governor or for a second term as state auditor.

Top image: Screenshot from Rob Sand’s “Transparency Tuesday” video on June 1.

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Iowa set to pay off Workday contract this month

The state of Iowa should be able to pay the remainder on its contract to acquire the Workday software system once Governor Kim Reynolds signs the final appropriations bill lawmakers approved before adjourning on May 19.

Senate File 615, the so-called “standings” bill, allocates $23.23 million from the state’s general fund to the Office of Chief Financial Officer during the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30. That money is to be used for “implementation of a new state central personnel, accounting, and budget system.”

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Late budget amendment sought funds for no-bid Homeland Security contract

One day before Iowa lawmakers adjourned for the year, the Iowa Senate amended a spending bill to allocate $4.5 million over two years to the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for a sole source contract.

The funding to install a mobile panic button system in Iowa’s K-12 schools could only have been used by Rave Mobile Safety, which recently signed a contract with the Homeland Security department to replace Iowa’s emergency mass notification system.

The Iowa House altered the bill to leave the funding in place without an earmark for a specific product. But the last-minute effort raises questions about whether outgoing Homeland Security Director Paul Trombino III sought the funding to benefit a company represented by one of Iowa’s most influential lobbyists.

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Governor endorses plan targeting Iowans on public assistance

A longstanding effort by Iowa Senate Republicans to reduce the number of Iowans receiving various forms of public assistance got a quiet boost last week from Governor Kim Reynolds.

For the first time, the governor’s draft human services budget included provisions that would create asset tests for federal food assistance and require the Iowa Department of Human Services to establish a new “eligibility verification system” for Medicaid and several other public assistance programs.

State Senator Jason Schultz has pushed similar legislation for several years running. Each session, Senate Republicans have approved the bills, which died in the House Human Resources Committee (see here and here).

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