Fact Checker

Fact Checker: Theresa Greenfield blasts Joni Ernst over 'illegal contributions'

A new ad from the Theresa Greenfield campaign claims her rival, incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, accepted ille
A new ad from the Theresa Greenfield campaign claims her rival, incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, accepted illegal campaign contributions. (Screen grab of ad)

Theresa Greenfield, the Democrat vying this year for Joni Ernst’s seat in the U.S. Senate, has a new ad highlighting her incumbent opponent’s history with campaign contributions.

Greenfield shared the ad in a July 15 tweet that said, “Joni Ernst was caught knowingly accepting illegal contributions from corporations and had to pay the largest penalty EVER for an Iowa politician.”

The attached 30-second ad claimed Ernst’s “campaign was even caught red-handed taking illegal contributions from corporations.”

Analysis

First, we’ll check on the veracity of a few details of Greenfield’s claim: that the contributions were illegal, that they came from corporations and that Ernst knowingly accepted them. Then we’ll review whether it was the largest ever penalty for an Iowa politician.

Graded an A

The Fact Checker team reached out to Greenfield’s campaign for its sourcing on these claims. They pointed to filings from the Federal Elections Commission in 2017 that, after reviewing contributions to Ernst’s 2014 Senate bid, levied a $14,500 civil penalty against the Joni for Iowa campaign and its treasurer. Cabell Hobbs.

The penalty came after the FEC found the campaign had “received excessive and prohibited contributions totaling $37,190.00 for the 2014 General Election” from 32 entities: 26 individuals, one partnership, one multicandidate political action committee, one nonmulticandidate political action committee and three corporations.

Campaigns are given 60 days to refund excessive portions of contributions, or otherwise have the contributor redesignate or re-attribute the donation. The FEC said Ernst’s campaign failed to comply with those requirements.

So we know Ernst’s campaign was found by the FEC to be accepting illegal contributions, and some of them were from corporations.

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But was she doing so “knowingly?” The legal limitation on individual contributions to a campaign was $2,600 under the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, which also prohibits candidates and political committees “from knowingly accepting excessive contributions.” It also bars political committees from accepting money from corporations’ general treasury funds.

A conciliation agreement gets to the “knowingly” verbiage (as does a headline from the left-leaning news site Iowa Starting Line, which broke this contribution story in 2019). In the matter of Joni for Iowa and its treasurer, Hobbs, the agreement stated they violated campaign finance law “by knowingly accepting excessive and prohibited contributions, and by failing to timely refund excessive and prohibited contributions.”

The campaign, for its part, contended in the agreement that it did not intend to violate regulations. Joni for Iowa said the violations came because of a “time consuming and difficult” process of aggregating its contributions, which were more than $5.5 million in one quarterly report. The campaign also blamed a vendor it had hired — and subsequently fired — to assist with reviewing and accepting contributions and filing disclosure reports.

Nevertheless, the FEC found the illegal contributions, some from corporations, were accepted knowingly. Greenfield’s claim checks out so far.

Did the debacle leave Ernst with “the largest penalty EVER for an Iowa politician?”

A review of FEC administrative fine cases suggests yes. Some of the closest penalties leveraged against other Iowa politicians, according to an online database, include $9,400 for Citizens for Harkin and $4,812 for Matt Campbell for Congress, both in 2010.

Conclusion

These assertions in both Greenfield’s July 15 tweet and her new ad are correct. (The ad does, however, restate a slightly shaky claim that she “won’t take a dime of corporate PAC money,” but that’s another claim for another time — we gave it a B earlier this month.)

Ernst’s Democratic opponent is right that during her first Senate bid, Ernst was found to knowingly accepted illegal money from corporations and, as a result, paid a hefty fine. We give Greenfield’s claim an A.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.

Claims must be independently verifiable.

We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by Molly Duffy of The Gazette.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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