While now on hold, the potential state review of an Iowa government insurance program could undermine a Decorah state representative’s chance for reelection in an already competitive rematch race.
House District 55 Rep. Michael Bergan sits on the board of directors for the Iowa Communities Assurance Pool, which was investigated by the Associated Press in September 2019 for routinely taking trips to out-of-state resorts off the coast of Florida and Lake Michigan. That included a trip to Marco Island, Florida for a 29-minute board meeting.
The organization that provides insurance programs for Iowa public entities filed a lawsuit in January to block State Auditor Rob Sand from reviewing their spending.
Sand, a Decorah native, said the suit has now been dismissed with a probable reintroduction, but news of Bergan’s activity with the insurance group that took questionable trips on may impact his chances at a third term representing the Northeast Iowa District.
“The fact that the suit was dismissed doesn’t mean that we have won, it means that it’s going to have to be brought in a different way, possibly by a different party. We are not finished yet. They have not heard the last of us, nor have we of them,” Sand said in an interview with Iowa Starting Line.
“Regardless of any audit, the fact that [Bergan] sat on a board and took multiple trips on public dollars is something that people care about.”
First elected in 2016, Bergan won the Decorah seat against Democrat Kayla Koether in 2018 by nine votes—a race that drew state attention after it surfaced that absentee ballots without postmarks but were verified by the postal service that they were sent on time went uncounted in the district.
Though Koether filed a lawsuit against Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate and Winneshiek County Auditor Benjamin Steines to get 29 absentee mail-in ballots counted, Iowa House Republicans refused to count them and Bergan took the seat.
He’ll face Koether again in the general election on Nov. 3 in a district that has swung a fair amount in the past decade. President Donald Trump won the district by around seven points over Hillary Clinton in 2016, although Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney in the 2012 election by around 12 points. Governor Kim Reynolds beat her Democratic competitor Fred Hubbell by around five points in the 2018 Governor’s race.
Sand told the insurance board in October 2019 that it would “be of public interest” for his office to review their spending since 2016. He cited AP reporting which said the “board has met several times since 2009 on islands off the coast of Florida and in Lake Michigan and other getaway destinations, according to a review of meeting minutes and spending records.”
As the AP noted, meetings of public entities must be “easily accessible to the people,” but no one has ever filed to provide a public comment at any of the insurance board’s out-of-state trips.
The group received $38 million for its coverage last year, according to the AP, which protects around 800 Iowan cities, towns and other government entities.
The AP also found that the board’s meeting minutes show its members, who are mostly retired from government jobs, have had their pay tripled since 2010 to $300 for attending meetings. They also received $175 for traveling to and from the meetings and were reimbursed for hotels, meals and travel.
Inspection of the board’s spending and travel triggered changes that included a cancellation of another board meeting in Florida and the withdrawal of a $1,000 deposit for a “Lake Michigan paradise” August 2020 meeting. The board’s vice chairman, Gary Mahannah, also dropped his bid for re-election after the reports surfaced.
The insurance board’s lawsuit, filed in Polk County on Dec. 30, was dismissed “on more of a procedural issue,” said Sand, who’s office had begun auditing the group before they filed.
Board Chair Jody Smith would not comment on the status of the current status of the lawsuit. “The ICAP Board declines to comment on litigation – past, pending or threatened,” he said in an email to Iowa Starting Line. Bergan didn’t respond to Iowa Starting Line’s inquiries for further information on the pool’s lawsuit or his reelection efforts.
by Isabella Murray
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