Watchdog Group Calls For FEC Investigation Of Joni Ernst’s ‘Dark Money’ Ties

Photo by Julie Fleming

The American Democracy Legal Fund sent a letter today to the Federal Election Commission urging the government agency to investigate allegations that members of Sen. Joni Ernst’s campaign violated election laws by coordinating with “dark money” group Iowa Values.

The request for an investigation comes in light of a Friday Associated Press article detailing Ernst’s connections to the political nonprofit.

“We are deeply concerned about allegations outlined in this bombshell report, particularly that Senator Ernst’s aides may have solicited an illegal $50,000 campaign contribution on behalf of the Senator’s re-election efforts,” said Brad Woodhouse, of the American Democracy Legal Fund (ADLF), in a statement.

“Politicians like Senator Ernst who think they are above the law are why Americans are fed up with Washington, and the Federal Election Commission must begin an investigation immediately to hold those who may have broken the law accountable.”

The letter lays out key points of the AP’s investigation, including that top political allies to Ernst founded Iowa Values and, despite election law stating a political nonprofit’s primary purpose cannot be campaign work, documents, emails and a strategy memo reviewed by the news outlet “not only make clear that the group’s aim is securing an Ernst win in 2020, but they also show Ernst and her campaign worked in close concert with Iowa Values.”

“At the center of our allegation is a third party entity called Iowa Values, a 501 (c)(4) organization that by law cannot make political work their primary purpose,” the ADLF letter states. “However, while Iowa Values claims its purpose was to educate voters on policy issues, a recent report by the Associated Press notes that internal documents make clear that group’s purpose was to re-elect Senator Ernst.

“The report also notes that Iowa Values was founded by a longtime consultant to Senator Ernst, and the group shares a fundraiser with the Senator’s campaign,” the letter continues.

Iowa Values, initially organized during Ernst’s first Senate run in 2014, resurfaced over the summer with a six-figure digital advertising campaign “to highlight the work Sen. Ernst has done to fight for Iowans and to combat wasteful government spending.” The nonprofit is run by Derek Flowers, a former campaign manager for Ernst.

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A senior advisor to Ernst has denied the AP’s report, calling its findings “the definition of fake news.” The campaign has not specifically refuted any of the reporter’s findings, however.

It is unlikely the Federal Election Commission will investigate the ADLF’s complaint, as it does not currently have enough members on its board to meet and conduct business.

Starting Line first reported on Iowa Values in June when the group announced its initial ad buy.

But this is not the first time a campaign of Ernst’s has been called out for potential FEC violations.

In 2014, The Washington Post reported on an Ernst-aligned super PAC run out of the consulting firm office of David Kochel, who worked as a strategist for her general election campaign against Democrat Bruce Braley.

Nonprofit 501(c)(4) “dark money” groups like Iowa Values cannot legally coordinate or directly contribute to a political campaign, and while they can participate in some political activity, it cannot be the primary purpose of the organization. They can accept unlimited contributions and do not have to publicly disclose its donors. A Super PAC does have to disclose its donors, but it can spend unlimited money in advance of a candidate (it also cannot coordinate directly with a candidate).

“The facts outlined in this report are extremely troubling and suggest a pattern of illegal behavior by close affiliates of Senator Ernst’s,” Woodhouse, of ADLF, wrote in his letter to the FEC. “We respectfully request you begin an immediate investigation into these allegations.”

Also Monday, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield’s campaign put out a press release in which they posed five questions they wanted Ernst to answer:

  1. Will you fire the longtime fundraiser and general consultant involved in setting up this dark money scheme?
  2. Will you call on “Iowa Values” to disclose its donor history?
  3. How many donors did you personally introduce to your dark money group to circumvent campaign finance limits?
  4. Will you call on “Iowa Values” to immediately stop its advertising and GOTV efforts on your behalf and dissolve?
  5. How do you explain these “undeniable” ties between your “top political aides” and this dark money group — is there any rational explanation other than they were directed by you to establish and run this organization?

“The facts laid out in this story, backed up by internal emails and memos, are undeniable,” said Jordanna Zeigler, Greenfield’s campaign manager, in a statement. “Voters across Iowa deserve real answers to these questions about wrongdoing, and Senator Ernst needs to be held accountable.”


By Elizabeth Meyer
Posted 12/9/19

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