Assistant Attorney General Rob Sand has investigated and prosecuted cases of corruption, fraud and abuse for the past seven years for Iowa. Now he looks to use that experience to turn the State Auditor’s office into a more aggressive watchdog agency that keeps a check on powerful interests within the government and beyond.
Today Sand announced his candidacy to take on incumbent Republican Auditor Mary Mosiman, kicking it off with a statewide tour that begins in his hometown of Decorah. The 35-year-old will likely be the only Democrat in the race.
Preparations for the run have been months in the making, and Sand has put together an impressive list of Democratic activists and elected officials from across the state backing him (included at the end of this post). Many within the party believe he’ll be the most competitive candidate that Democrats have put up in many cycles for auditor, going up against a Republican who is little-known to most Iowa voters.
But for much of the day before he launched his statewide candidacy, Sand wasn’t making last-minute phone calls or tweaking every detail of his tour. He was sitting high up in a tree in his backyard, bow in hand, waiting for a deer to pass by.
“As soon as this interview ends, I’m going to go hunting,” he told Starting Line on Sunday, sitting in the basement of his Des Moines home where several deer he’s shot (most in Madison County) hang on the wall.
Sand grew up in Northeast Iowa’s Decorah where he had jobs wrangling chickens as a teenager, spent most of his free time outside and got involved early on in local community activism (see our earlier profile of him here). His dream job in school was to prosecute white-collar crime, something he got to do soon after law school when he joined the Attorney General’s office in 2010. That brought him to Des Moines, where he started a family that now includes two young children.
Throughout his time working for Attorney General Tom Miller, Sand started to notice shortcomings in how the State Auditor’s office – where most cases of government fraud begin – functioned.
“It’s supposed to be the taxpayer’s watchdog. You look at the seal for the office and it’s literally a guard dog in front of a treasury chest,” Sand explained. “In my experience with the office, one of the things that makes me want to run, is the leadership there doesn’t acknowledge the importance of law enforcement experience and law enforcement professionals. They do all these public corruption investigations, but they have no one with experience prosecuting financial crime or law enforcement background in investigating it.”
He’s seen mistakes get made in that process that likely wouldn’t have happened if the Auditor had a more diverse team. Sand suggested that Mosiman’s concept of the office is simply the state’s CPA – part of the job, certainly, but not all of it. He would prefer they build out a more complete team of professionals to better root out fraud.
“It’s like having a football team where you have 11 quarterbacks playing on offense,” he said of the current setup. “You’re going to lose.”
That focus would fit well into Sand’s background, whose lead role on the state’s “Hot Lotto” case brought him national attention. He also worked on and later led Iowa’s investigation into the film tax credit scandal, as well an investigation into a Department of Transportation worker who was selling the state’s right-of-way property back to himself.
“I have more experience with investigations into public corruption than anyone else in this state over the last decade,” Sand noted. “We didn’t just uncover the lottery scam, the investigation and prosecution that I led. Nationwide, we went through 45,000 winning lottery tickets to find seven with fixed outcomes … I am willing to go look at and question insiders who are abusing their position, abusing their trust, abusing their power.”
That approach could mean making some people with powerful positions in the government rather uncomfortable. And that’s part of Sand’s critique of Mosiman’s performance – that she’s been unwilling to hold the Republican administration in Iowa to account for questionable budgeting practices and more.
“I have been willing to prosecute not just Republicans, but Democrats. In my job, you call a spade a spade,” Sand explained. “It’s very disappointing to me to see that the current Auditor has broken from the Iowa tradition of really being a taxpayer’s watchdog. [Former Auditor] Dick Johnson, who was a Republican, almost cost Terry Branstad a primary when he was running for governor one time, because he was willing to criticize the way Branstad managed the books – or cook them in Johnson’s views. Dave Vaudt, very well-respected, willing to criticize Republicans when they deserve criticism for what they did. Total opposite right now.”
The biggest concern is Mosiman’s mostly uncritical view of fellow Republican Kim Reynolds’ budgeting practices this year. Several months she ago she described Iowa’s budget as “balanced,” “stable” and “responsible.” Democrats have lambasted Reynolds and former Governor Terry Branstad’s massive borrowing and inventive budgeting tricks to keep the state afloat.
“We borrowed $160 million bucks – Culver borrowed less when there was an actual economic downturn,” Sand said.
He also sees opportunities to use the office to come up with cost-saving efficiencies. The Auditor’s office is supposed to look at ways to reduce duplication, spend money more efficiently and ensure government agencies are getting the best prices for goods and services. Since they’re poring over government spending numbers anyway, they ought to have a unit specifically devoted to efficiency work, Sand believes.
Mosiman, who took over the office in 2013 after former Auditor Dave Vaudt left, has had only one statewide win (in the 2014 Republican wave year), and isn’t nearly as well-known as Iowa’s other statewide elected officials. Still, a Democrat winning the office would be a big change. Only four Democrats in all of Iowa history have held the office, the most recent being Lorne Worthington in 1971.
Aside from his prosecutorial experience, however, Sand also hopes to have a broader appeal than most Democrats do in rural Iowa.
“I think that a lot of people in rural areas feel neglected to some degree. I plan on reaching out and being everywhere in the state,” he said. “I feel much more at home in rural areas. I like to talk about hunting, I like to talk about fishing.”
Sioux Center, located in Iowa’s most-Republican county, is on the itinerary for Sand’s kick-off tour. And he noted that he’s made it a point during his time in the Attorney General’s office to ensure people in small town Iowa were included in the process.
“I’ve been to city council meetings in small towns where the city clerk stole money. I didn’t just try the case from Des Moines or stayed there the whole time,” Sand explained. “I went out, sat down with them. I wanted to make sure they were listened to, that they had input into the process and that they understood what we were doing from the Attorney General’s office was guided in part by how they felt about things. You have to be out there, you have to be listening to people.”
The travels should also give him some excuses to get out for some of his favorite outdoors activities, though his current goal is to get three more urban deer tags so he has a chance for an urban buck tag next year. He already got his statewide tag, nabbing an eleven-point deer in Madison County last month.
“It’s actually ready for pickup,” Sand recalled. “We might pick it up in Ankeny on the way to Mason City or Ames during the tour.”
Sand has a rather diverse set of well-known activists and elected officials backing him, both on the geographic and ideological side of things. They are:
Tom Miller, Des Moines, Attorney General
Bonnie Campbell, Des Moines, Former Attorney General
Scott Brennan, West Des Moines, Former Iowa Democratic Party Chair
Rob Hogg, Cedar Rapids, State Senator
Pam Jochum, Dubuque, State Senator
Daryl Beall, Fort Dodge, Former State Senator
Chris Hall, Sioux City, State Representative
Stacey Walker, Cedar Rapids, Linn County Supervisor
Kingsley Botchway, Iowa City, Mayor Pro-Tempore
Kurt Meyer, St. Ansgar, Tri-County Democrats Chair
Tanner Halleran, Keokuk, Keokuk County Democrats Chair
Sam Gray, Marion, Linn County Democrats 2nd Vice Chair
Lilian Sanchez, Iowa City, University of Iowa elected student leader
Penny Rosfjord, Sioux City, Woodbury County Activist
Ian Russell, Bettendorf, Scott County Activist
Sara Riley, Cedar Rapids, Linn County Activist
Laura Hubka, Riceville, Winneshiek County Activist
Jack Wertzberger, Dubuque, Dubuque County Activist
Courtney Vorwald, Elkader, Clayton County Activist
Elesha Gayman, Davenport, Scott County Activist
Amanda Bahena-Ortega, Sioux Center, Community Leader
Larry Grimstav, Decorah, Community Leader
Ravi Patel, Burlington, Des Moines County Business Owner
Rich Eychaner, Des Moines, Polk County Business Owner
by Pat Rynard