Perhaps Governor Kim Reynolds should just stay off planes.
The AP’s Ryan Foley reported this afternoon that Reynolds had once again taken a questionable plane ride paid for by a donor that has business with the state of Iowa. Dave North, the CEO of Sedgwick, a company that is contracted by the state to handle workers compensation claims, reimbursed his company for the use of the corporate jet to fly Reynolds and her family to an ISU bowl game. It happened on December 30, 2017 for the Liberty Bowl.
Reynolds drew scrutiny for another free trip in May of last year on Gary Kirke’s plane. Kirke owns several Iowa casinos and had another proposed one up for approval by the state.
The state ethics board okayed the bowl game trip, the AP reported, but did so because it was billed as a campaign expense. That’s the way Reynolds has gotten around the state law that bars personal gifts to elected official, even if they have business with the state. The AP noted that Sedgwick received $1.4 million from Iowa last year to deal with workers compensations claims.
There’s quite a few problems with this latest news.
For one, it came on the heels of Republicans’ passage last year of a workers compensation bill that made it harder for workers injured on the job to get benefits. That legislation was one of the most direct attacks on working Iowans’ rights to fair treatment when they get hurt and can’t work because of their injury. Companies like Sedgwick stand to gain from those changes.
It’s also a rather shady practice to accept fancy private jet flights from people and companies that receive government contracts or decisions that financially benefit them. That can give the appearance of pay-to-play, even if it wouldn’t have really changed the governor’s stance on the issue.
But here’s the biggest problem of all with this: Reynolds’ excuse for writing off the trip as a campaign expense could be used for practically any situation.
As the AP reported, the visit to Tennessee was only a “brief, half-day trip.” As anyone who’s been to a college bowl game (or any football game for that matter), getting from the airport to the stadium, making your way into the stadium, sitting through the halftime events and all the other fanfare can more than easily take up a “half-day.”
However, Reynolds’ spokesperson insisted that she conducted “campaign donor meetings” during the trip, allowing Reynolds to write off the private plane trip as a campaign in-kind expenditure (she paid for the football game tickets personally).
Now, technically, you probably could classify that as a “donor meeting” considering that North, who provided his company’s plane, is one of Reynolds’ biggest donors, contributing $110,000 to Reynolds’ campaign over the past two years. But if that’s all that is needed to write off a quick trip that very clearly mostly included personal fun, you could classify nearly any gift from a donor as a campaign expense.
If a major developer seeking a state contract for a new building paid to take Reynolds and her family to a ski lodge resort in Colorado for a weekend, would it all be legally fine so long as she had a quick meeting in the lobby about campaign strategy with some donors? Hell, could one of Reynolds’ top donors fly her to Walt Disney World if they promised to talk about her campaign vision for Iowa’s future while going on Space Mountain?
There has been no shortage of stories lately where politicians have clearly abused their campaign accounts to purchase personal items or take nice vacations.
Still, there’s perfectly legitimate reasons for a campaign to pay for a candidate’s trip somewhere that might also involve a little bit of personal fun and relaxation. Plenty of candidates, Democrat and Republican, have their campaigns pay for flights and hotels to New York City to hold a fundraiser. If the candidate also takes in a Broadway show while in town, no one is really going to accuse them of abusing their campaign fund.
And there’s many examples of where elected officials have political conferences or retreats at some very nice resort.
But it’s much different in the case of these in-kind contributions where one person or company is paying for something very specific. And even more so in this situation where the main purpose of the trip seems more like having personal fun, with the campaign excuse tacked on to the end of it. That’s where you’re clearly getting into the realm of major donors giving personal gifts (some may even call them bribes) to top elected officials. At least her plane ride from Kirke was specifically for campaign rallies around Iowa.
Obviously, politicians can and do get influenced by straight contributions to their campaigns that involve no personal gain other than getting elected (which is pretty nice in itself). But there has always been something that’s just extra unseemly about elected officials being treated to lavish dinners, fancy trips or other fun, personal gifts given to them by lobbyists or major donors or people/corporations with business before the state.
Reynolds likely thought this trip was no big deal, just a nice gesture from a friend and donor whose team happened to be playing hers in a bowl game. Her views on things like workers compensation may not be influenced by big checks; she just believes in that stance anyway.
But writing off a trip where the vast majority of it seems like a personal fun day as a campaign event so that you can get a free ride on a private jet is a terrible look. Worst of all, it sets a bad precedent for what other elected officials could do with major donors.
Maybe next time Reynolds could just live like the rest of us regular Iowans and take a commercial fight with a connection to take in a bowl game with her friend.
by Pat Rynard