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Elections panel fines Cedar Rapids mayoral candidate Amara Andrews and Democrat leader Bret Nilles
Unanimous vote chastises origins of campaign mailer
CEDAR RAPIDS — The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board on Thursday issued a reprimand and civil penalty of $200 each to former Cedar Rapids mayoral candidate Amara Andrews and Linn County Democrats Chair Bret Nilles for state code violations in sending a campaign mailer to voters against electing then-mayoral hopeful Tiffany O’Donnell.
In assessing the reprimand and fines with a unanimous vote by the six-member board, members indicated they disagreed with the previous director’s decision to delay action until after the election, which was decided in a Nov. 30 runoff, so as not to influence the result. They viewed it as setting precedent in similar cases.
“If we don’t enforce that, we don’t take action against candidates who mislead voters before elections, it just hollows out what we’ve been doing,” board Chair James Albert said. “ … It doesn’t send the right signal to other candidates in the future.”
Penalties were assessed individually because Andrews’ campaign committee has been dissolved.
Andrews’ campaign team in October acknowledged it coordinated with a political action committee to send the mailer to voters in the run up to the Nov. 2 local election criticizing O’Donnell, which the now-mayor has slammed as an ethics violation and troubling sign of partisanship in the race for nonpartisan office.
The mailer stated that “Tiffany O’Donnell calls herself a Reagan Republican … But she doesn’t act like one,” and criticizes her support for Republicans U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson and Gov. Kim Reynolds.
The mailer stated it was paid for by Iowa Voter Info, a political action committee registered with the Federal Elections Commission. Its first filing date was Oct. 27 — after the mailer had already been sent.
Additionally, it listed a post office box address in Cedar Rapids that goes to the Linn County Democratic Central Committee. Nilles previously said the box should have been listed as the one with the FEC as belonging to Iowa Voter Info.
Andrews’ campaign finance records showed an Oct. 2 charitable contribution in the amount of $9,000 to Iowa Voter Info. According to the board, Nilles asked a check be made out to Iowa Voter Info, and the Andrews committee complied but did not know the contribution was intended to fund a new political action committee.
The board determined this was an impermissible transfer, as Iowa Voter Info was never a charitable organization and was soon after registered as a PAC. Candidates may not make contributions from their campaign funds to such a committee.
The Andrews campaign correctly reported an in-kind contribution totaling $7,557.23 for the mailer, which was distributed on or around Oct. 22.
The board chair was adamant this was a “serious issue” with three violations — the false attribution statement, the improper transfer of funds reported as a charitable contribution and false representation to the public that the party responsible for the mailer was the Iowa Voter Info group when it was technically paid for by the Amara 4 CR campaign. The party that pays for the published material is responsible for it.
Albert questioned why, if the Andrews committee thought it was making a contribution to the local Democratic Party, it was labeled as a charitable contribution when the party is not one.
Board attorney Andrew Greenberg said the Andrews campaign quickly remedied the matter. Iowa Voter Info refunded the Andrews campaign $9,000 on Nov. 5 and published a correction notice in The Gazette on Nov. 17.
But Albert was unconvinced and said, “anyone who has filed a tax return would know the difference between a charitable contribution and one that isn’t.”
“What conclusion would a voter in Cedar Rapids jump to reading a campaign disclosure report and reading that this campaign committee has made a $9,000 charitable contribution?” Albert told Greenberg. “ … Would that voter have had this multiple conversations that you've had, these friendly conversations with these people?
“Would the voter have had the benefit of that? Or would the voter have come to the conclusion that this committee made a charitable contribution? What a nice thing to do, made a charitable contribution. What conclusion would the average voter in Cedar Rapids have jumped to being reading that report that this agency requires of candidates?”
Andrews said Thursday she has moved on from the campaign and is “glad this is behind me.”
“These were honest mistakes,” Andrews said. “There was no bad intention. If the board deems it appropriate for us to pay a fine, we will do that.”
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