Government

Cedar Rapids casino backers lend private plane, host fundraiser for Reynolds

Questions surface about political influence

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to supporters during a stop in Cedar Rapids to introduce her acting lieutenant governor Adam Gregg at Signature Flight Support in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, May 26, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to supporters during a stop in Cedar Rapids to introduce her acting lieutenant governor Adam Gregg at Signature Flight Support in southwest Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, May 26, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Contributions to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, including use of a private plane and a fundraiser, from an Iowa casino mogul and others tied to Wild Rose Entertainment’s bid for a state gambling license for a Cedar Rapids casino are drawing questions of whether political influence is at play.

Four people tied to Wild Rose Cedar Rapids, a $40 million casino proposed across from the DoubleTree Hotel on First Avenue SE, plan to host a $100-a-person fundraiser for Reynolds on June 13.

And, on May 26, Gary Kirke, chairman of Wild Rose and among the fundraiser hosts, lent his private plane so Reynolds and acting Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg could jet around the state for a campaign tour shortly after assuming their new roles.

“This is getting too cozy when millions of dollars are at stake,” said Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, who is considering a run for governor, possibly challenging Reynolds in a GOP primary next June.

The gifts come several months before the five-member Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission, which is an independent state panel appointed by the governor, considers three applications for casinos in downtown Cedar Rapids. They could reach a decision in November.

Other proposals include the $165 million Cedar Crossing by the River and the $105 million Cedar Crossing Central, which are both proposed by the Cedar Rapids Development Group to be built in downtown Cedar Rapids. The five-member gaming commission rejected a Cedar Crossing application in 2014. Questions arose after that vote about financial ties between a commission member and an opponent of the Cedar Rapids casino.

Jamie Buelt, a spokesman for Wild Rose, which also has casinos in Clinton, Jefferson and Emmetsburg, defended the contributions noting the commission is independent from the governor’s office.

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“Gary Kirke personally supports Kim Reynolds; however, he did not organize this event,” Buelt said. “Gary and Sue Kirke are two of 16 people listed as the ‘host’ committee.”

The fundraiser is being held at the West Des Moines home of Jennifer and Chuck Larson, a consultant for Wild Rose Cedar Rapids. Other hosts include Michael Richards, Wild Rose vice chairman, and Jeff Boeyink, another consultant. Host committee opportunities for the event range from $500 for a bronze designation to $5,000-plus for platinum, according to the invitation.

Buelt downplayed the use of Kirke’s plane calling it an in-kind campaign contribution, and noted all appropriate filings will be made in accordance with state and federal law. She noted no laws were violated.

“Gov. Reynolds’ staff contacted Gary last week about using his plane for the announcement of the ‘Building a Better Iowa’ campaign,” Buelt said. “He was honored she asked him and he was happy to help.”

Buelt added neither Wild Rose nor Kirke have or will ask Reynolds to advocate for their application, and the fundraiser and use of Kirke’s plane will not influence the license decision.

Kim and Kevin Reynolds, Gregg, two pilots, two aides, and one trooper traveled on Kirke’s 1998 Cessna to Orange City, Mason City, Cedar Rapids, Davenport and Des Moines on May 26, Reynolds spokeswoman Brenna Smith said in an email. The Associated Press first reported Reynolds’ use of the plane.

“As has been established for a long time, the governor’s office has nothing to do with the decisions of the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission,” Smith said in an email. “The IRGC is an independent state agency that makes its own decisions without the oversight of the governor’s office.”

She said Reynolds would not be taking a position on the casino applications.

Steve Gray, an investor in the Cedar Rapids Development Group, called the fundraiser and use of Kirke’s plane questionable decision making.

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“I hope the decision to award a casino license in Cedar Rapids is based on the facts and most qualified applicants, and I hope there is not undue political influence on the process,” Gray said. “It raises my antenna and is questionable decision making.”

Casino investors raising money for governors is not unusual. Kirke has donated $135,746 to previous Gov. Terry Branstad and $25,125 to Reynolds since 2009, while Gray has donated $24,200 to Branstad since 2012 and none to Reynolds, according to state disclosures.

Gray has held fundraisers for Branstad over the years, including in October 2012. The circumstances were different in that Gray’s fundraiser was nearly a year before he applied for a license, while this month’s fundraiser would occur while an application is pending.

Corbett said given questions about political influence surrounding casino licenses and that governors appoint commissioners, taking support from Kirke was “unwise” and “just raises the question about objectivity.”

Jeff Lamberti, a commission member from Ankeny, rejected the notion of political influence.

“I would fully expect she will follow the model of Gov. Branstad, and let the commission do its job and I don’t expect her to comment or weigh in. ... Let us do our work. and make a decision.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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