Court tells FEC to take action on complaint against dark money group tied to Joni Ernst

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, speaks Tuesday during a confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett before
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, speaks Tuesday during a confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A U.S. District Court judge has entered a default judgment against the Federal Election Commission, ordering it to take action on a complaint involving a so-called dark money group tied to Sen. Joni Ernst’s campaign.

The action Wednesday was brought by the left-leaning Washington-based Campaign Legal Center, which told the court the FEC had failed to take action on its complaint that Ernst’s campaign had illegally coordinated with the dark money group, Iowa Values, a political nonprofit backing Ernst. Candidates and outside groups are prohibited from coordinating their political activities.

“Dark money” groups are those that raise and spend funds meant to influence political outcomes where the source of the money is not disclosed.

According to a July 2019 email obtained by the Associated Press, an Ernst campaign consultant asked a donor to make a $50,000 contribution to Iowa Values, a political nonprofit backing the incumbent Republican, after Ernst introduced the two.

At the time, Ernst responded by saying that outside forces backing her campaign are independent and that under federal law she can’t engage with them. That’s essentially the same defense her Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield has used when questioned about spending by outside groups supporting her.

Greenfield, who has made ending Washington corruption a core issue in her campaign to defeat Ernst, was quick to respond to the decision.

“She broke the law looking out for herself. She’s part of the corruption in Washington — I have a plan to end it,” Greenfield posted on Twitter.

The Ernst campaign said Greenfield has her own ethical challenges.


“Unlike Theresa Greenfield, who was forced off the ballot the last time she ran for office due to felony election fraud by her campaign, our campaign always acts in full compliance with and in the spirit of the law,” campaign spokesman Brendan Conley said. “Greenfield was also hypocritically caught by the FEC for taking illegal contributions and was caught by a watchdog illegally coordinating with outside groups during the primary.”

Earlier this month, a Polk County Republican filed a complaint with the FEC alleging the Iowa Democratic Party, Greenfield’s campaign and other Democratic organizations violated federal law by illegally coordinating their efforts to defeat Ernst.

The FEC generally has not enforced coordination rules, allowing for the proliferation of super PACs and nonprofit groups tied to party leaders and individual candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The FEC has been hamstrung the lack of a quorum.

“We look forward to the FEC having a quorum to review this false partisan attack from Greenfield and her allies,” Conley said.

However the judge who issued the default judgment cited other cases to say that whether a court may find an agency has unlawfully withheld action because it has too few member to muster a quorum is “a nice point, which we need not resolve here.”

The FEC also was ordered to pay the Campaign Legal center’s $400 costs in bringing its action.

Comments: (319) 398-8375; james.lynch@thegazette.com

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