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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Federal officials: Iowa can't use CARES Act funds for software system

The state of Iowa’s contract with Workday to upgrade computer systems “is not an allowable expenditure” under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Inspector General informed Iowa Department of Management Director David Roederer on October 16.

The State Auditor’s office released a copy of the letter on October 21. State Auditor Rob Sand announced two days earlier that he had also informed Governor Kim Reynolds and Roederer that spending $21 million on Workday-related costs was “not an appropriate use” of the Coronavirus Relief Fund.

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Auditor: Iowa governor misused $21 million in COVID-19 relief funds

Governor Kim Reynolds erred in directing that $21 million in federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act be used to cover the cost of a software system purchased before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to State Auditor Rob Sand.

Sand announced on October 19 that he and the U.S. Treasury Department’s Inspector General “have advised Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds that her decision to use millions of CARES Act dollars to help implement a new software system for state government was not an allowable use of the funds.” The Treasury Department and governor’s office did not respond to requests for confirmation and comment.

Sand also described as “questionable” the use of CARES Act funds to pay the governor’s permanent staff. Bleeding Heartland was first to report last month that Reynolds directed $448,449 in COVID-19 relief funds to pay a portion of salaries and benefits for 21 of her staffers from mid-March through June 2020. Sand warned that a federal audit may eventually determine that the payments did not meet requirements, so reallocating the funds to purposes clearly allowed under the CARES Act would be less risky for taxpayers.

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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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Why did these House Republicans reject an easy win for Iowa taxpayers?

State Auditor Rob Sand had “great news” to share with members of the Iowa House and Senate Appropriations Committees in May. Federal officials had agreed not to demand repayment for alleged overbilling, provided that Iowa changed its billing practices for future audits. The savings to the state would amount to tens of thousands of dollars for each fiscal year.

Documents Bleeding Heartland obtained through a public records request confirm that key Reynolds administration officials were on board with the reform plan, and Iowa Senate appropriators took it up in June as the legislature was completing its work.

The records also show that State Representatives Gary Mohr and John Landon refused to move the fix through the Iowa House.

What they don’t explain is why.

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