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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
DES MOINES — House Democrats are calling for the Judiciary Committee to terminate its contract with a Des Moines attorney hired to represent it in an investigation of a district court judge who may have acted improperly while leading a judicial nominating commission.
Committee Democrats have opposed the investigation and questioned whether legislators have authority to issue subpoenas. They were not consulted when Chairman Steve Holt, R-Denison, hired Alan Ostergren, president of the Kirkwood Institute, a conservative public interest law firm. Ostergren has represented Republicans, including the campaign of former President Donald Trump. He also is a registered lobbyist at the Capitol.
The investigation could be seen by the public as politicians trying to “push their own agenda and inappropriately interfere with a separate but equal branch of government,” House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, and Rep. Mary Wolfe of Clinton, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, wrote in a letter to Holt and House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford.
“Hiring a lobbyist in secret to represent the House Judiciary Committee carrying out an investigation into the Judicial Branch only exacerbates this concern,” Wolfe said.
However, Ostergren said his activities on behalf of the Kirkwood Institute fall under the definition the House carved out for lobbying activities for charitable organizations when an individual is not paid.
“I have chosen to register as a lobbyist despite this exemption,” he said.
Holt rejected Democrats’ suggestions, saying “the only party interested in politicizing this investigation is the minority party.”
“I have no agenda other than to pursue answers I believe the people of Iowa deserve to the questions regarding Judge (Kurt) Stoebe’s alleged misconduct,” Holt said in a statement.
House ethics rules forbid employees from lobbying and working for a political action committee.
“A revolving door where any person is a registered lobbyist in the morning and acts as a state employee in the afternoon is a recipe for corruption,” Konfrst warned. “Iowans are already skeptical of government today, and this will only deepen concerns that government is run by special interests and lobbyists.”
Ostergren called that charge “baseless,” arguing that as an independent contractor with the House, he is not subject to the rules that apply to employees.
Holt defended contracting with Ostergren after asking Democratic Attorney General Tom Miller to represent the Judiciary Committee. Miller declined because he is representing the Judicial Branch. Of all the others approached, only Ostergren had the “intestinal fortitude to take on the courts.”
The Judiciary Committee launched an investigation of District Court Judge Kurt Stoebe, who was the chairman of a northern Iowa judicial nominating commission. A commissioner accused Stoebe of making inappropriate and unprofessional comments about certain nominees, of falsely claiming that a nominee had withdrawn from consideration, and of unfairly favoring one nominee over others during discussions and interviews.
His actions tainted the process, Gov. Kim Reynolds said, so she rejected the nominees and ordered the commission to start over for only the second time in history. The commission recommended the same two finalists, and Reynolds appointed district Associate Judge Derek Johnson to the bench in December.
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