116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The Iowa Democratic Party is set to recognize the leader of the Linn County Democrats at their annual Hall of Fame celebration in Des Moines this afternoon, much to the anger of one Democratic activist in Lee County.
The activist, Jennifer Hauff of Keokuk, has a point. Bret Nilles of Marion is receiving the honor of Outstanding County Chair less than a year after political action committee headed by Nilles improperly coordinated with a Cedar Rapids mayoral campaign to produce a campaign mailer for last year’s election and only months after Nilles and the candidate, Amara Andrews, were each reprimanded and fined by the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board for their roles in the coordination of the dubious campaign mailer.
One can opine that it’s a bit odd for such an honor to be given so close to the occurrence of such an infraction, as I explained to Nilles when we spoke last week. Understandably, he wasn’t pleased that I was revisiting the issue months after its conclusion, but mistakes like last year’s fiasco can negatively affect local political engagement when efforts of local volunteers get marred by others’ shenanigans. Hauff contends that this was her experience. She was queried in the Andrews/PAC investigation due to the PAC sharing the same name of a local Facebook page she ran called Iowa Voter Info, and claims to have dealt with inquiries from the media, the ethics board, and the Federal Election Commission as a result of the shared name — and because the paperwork Nilles’ Iowa Voter Info PAC submitted to the FEC mistakenly listed the email Hauff used for her Facebook page.
The Iowa Voter Info PAC, for which Nilles was designated agent, wasn’t actually formed to help candidate Andrews. It had been conceived over the summer with the intent to “inform” voters about the records of federal GOP officials such as Ashley Hinson and whatever allegedly evil action she was taking as congresswoman for northeast Iowa, hence the intent to register with the FEC. By autumn, it was hurriedly decided that Iowa Voter Info would be used to inform Cedar Rapids voters about the allegedly evil Tiffany O’Donnell, obviously perceived as Andrews’ most threatening opponent in the mayoral race. Money was (improperly) transferred between the Andrews campaign and the Iowa Voter Info PAC, which hadn’t yet filed any paperwork. Templates used by the Linn County Democrats were hastily used to craft anti-O’Donnell mailers. One mailer landed in the mailbox of a skeptical opinion writer who researched and wrote about it, and the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan.
So, yeah — Nilles shared culpability for a big screw-up, or rather a series of them. He admitted his errors, demonstrated remorse, and was held accountable. The facts of the improper coordination between the Amara4CR campaign and the not-yet-filed Iowa Voter Info PAC were litigated extensively — in the media, on the ballot, and through an investigation by the ethics board.
Hauff sought to add her perspective to the story by submitting two guest columns to The Gazette. One printed last Dec. 1, after the mayoral campaign concluded. The other was sent to the editorial inbox last month, after Hauff learned of Nilles’ selection for the Iowa Democratic Party award, which is what prompted my revisiting of the subject today.
The latter of Hauff’s two submissions made claims that cast Nilles as a “lying crook,” which I found jarring, given his immediate willingness to face the consequences. Multiple attempts to follow up with Hauff by phone and email were unsuccessful, leaving Gazette editorial staff with limited to no ability to verify other claims in the submission that alluded to malicious intent. Accordingly, an editorial decision was made to not publish it. Given the severity of the unverified claims, I decided to also review the original column of Hauff’s which printed last December, before I joined The Gazette as regular staff. Admittedly, I hadn’t read the column very closely at the time. An online version was never made available on The Gazette's website but remains on the archived digital copy of that day’s print edition.
The story of the Andrews/Iowa Voter Info coordination was compelling enough by the facts alone and only serves to be clouded by mischaracterizations that unduly malign those who’ve acknowledged their failures. I’ve determined that some of the statements in Hauff’s printed column were exaggerated (or inaccurate) and in need of correction, including a claim that Nilles and Susan Elliott-Bryan, secretary of the Linn County Democrats and custodian of Iowa Voter Info’s records, “decided to pin this” on Hauff and make her “look the villain.” While Hauff surely received some phone calls and emails, I’ve seen no evidence that Hauff was ever facing serious scrutiny. In fact, the ethics board was made aware that Hauff was not involved on the same day that the complaint leading to Nilles and Andrews’ reprimands was filed, according to an Oct. 29 email.
It’s also important to note that Elliott-Bryan reached out to Hauff a whole month before her guest column printed to apologize for mistakenly listing Hauff’s email as the contact for the PAC. A copy of that correspondence provided by Nilles shows that Hauff’s email and the one that was set up for the PAC were nearly identical save for only two letters, making it entirely plausible that Hauff’s email was used solely by accident. Yet Hauff’s commentary implies that her email was purposely and therefore deceptively used on the PAC’s forms, despite Elliott-Bryan’s earnest attempt to remedy the confusion. Therefore, I reject Hauff’s characterization that using the wrong email was a “devious attempt to implicate” her. Hauff never acknowledged Elliott-Bryan’s attempt to contact her, let alone her apology.
Ironically, Nilles was more or less the only person culpable in the improper PAC/campaign coordination to readily admit fault. Initially, Andrews and her allies, including paid campaign consultant Stacey Walker, also a Linn County supervisor, pleaded ignorance to my inquiries about improper coordination. Even after campaign finance documents were released, the campaign ducked and dodged, putting out statements claiming that they “routinely” supported “outside organizations interested in helping progressive candidates get elected to office.” (No other expenditures which could fit that description were listed on the Amara4CR campaign’s financial disclosures.) Nilles, on the other hand took it under the chin, admitting during a televised interview with a local news station that he and his group had likely broken the law.
When offered the opportunity to rebut Hauff’s editorial shortly after it printed, Nilles declined, understandably opting instead to let the dust settle. That dust is kicked up a bit at the moment by an activist with an ax to grind and a journalist with a story to write, but I do not want my reporting to be used to misrepresent the facts in a way that unfairly smears anyone’s character, especially regarding a story I am very proud to have broken as an amateur opinion writer.
Does Nilles deserve the award he’s to receive this afternoon? State Democrats certainly believe so. I must admit that I’ve always viewed Nilles’ leadership of the local Democrat party as far superior to that of his counterpart(s) on the local Republican committee, of which I am a member. Current Linn County GOP chairman Justin Wasson tends to treat his position as party leader as a launchpad to run for higher office at the expense of his responsibilities to the committee, and well-meaning members have approached him behind the scenes to plead with him to step down. Every local political party — every volunteer organization, at that — has its drama. Organizationally speaking, Nilles’ party — with him at the helm — boasts the more well-oiled machine.
The records of even the best leaders have their blemishes, some of which can leave scars. That’s important for all local political leaders and activists to consider, especially in the final months of the current general election campaign. Nilles is a good guy. I don’t expect him to ping the ethics radar in the future. Instead, I hope the next devastating blow he’s dealt is in the form of his candidates losing. I’m a Republican after all, and this still is politics.
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