Sen. Joni Ernst’s 2014 campaign paid the largest civil penalty ever levied by the Federal Election Commission against an Iowa politician, according to previously unreported commission records.
In 2017, the FEC found Ernst’s first campaign for Senate broke the law by “knowingly accepting excessive and prohibited contributions, and by failing to timely refund excessive and prohibited contributions.”
The FEC fined Ernst’s committee, “Joni for Iowa,” $14,500 for campaign finance violations. According to FEC records, it received the payment from her committee in October 2017.
The Reports Analysis Division of the FEC found Ernst’s campaign “did not timely refund, reattribute, or redesignate” $37,190 in “excessive and prohibited contributions” during the 2014 general election fundraising cycle. According to the report, the illegal donations came from 26 individuals, one partnership, one multi-candidate political action committee, one non-multi-candidate political action committee and three corporate entities.
“The committee (Joni for Iowa), did not timely refund, reattribute, or redesignate these excessive and prohibited contributions,” the FEC stated.
In addition to the illegal contributions and failure to properly refund them in a timely manner, the FEC also found Ernst’s campaign did not accurately disclose debts on its original 2014 July Quarterly Report. An amended filing for the July report was filed on October 15, which included the debts, but was well after when such debts were supposed to be disclosed.
Ernst’s fine of $14,500 is the largest FEC civil penalty ever doled out to an Iowa politician dating back to the earliest public records from 1980.
“Civil penalties result from enforcement actions and sometimes involve FEC investigations,” according to the fact-check site Check Your Fact. “In 2006, the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, also known as Freddie Mac, agreed to pay a $3.8 million civil penalty for improperly making and facilitating campaign contributions – the largest civil penalty ever paid to the FEC.”
Other notable fines paid to the FEC by Iowa politicians include Democrat Jim Mowrer, $3,000; and Republican Christoper Peters, $3,424.
In pleading its case to avoid FEC fines, the Ernst campaign said “it did not intend to violate [FEC regulations] but the process of aggregating the contributions to determine compliance was time consuming and difficult because of the volume of contributions and the large number of contributors who made multiple contributions.”
Ernst’s campaign also said it hired a new, more experienced “FEC reporting compliance firm” when it learned of the violations, in an attempt “to ensure that these errors will be avoided in the future.”
The AP investigation found 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.”
In one instance, Ernst appeared to introduce a donor to the political nonprofit’s chief fundraiser, who then reached out, referencing that introduction, to request $50,000 to help messaging efforts in support of Ernst.
On Monday, the American Democracy Legal Fund sent a letter to the FEC urging it to investigate the Ernst campaign in light of the AP’s report.
“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.”
During Ernst’s initial run for Senate 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.
By Elizabeth Meyer