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Government

Iowa restrictions on lawmaker-to-lobbyist revolving door praised

(File photo) The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
(File photo) The Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines, photographed on Tuesday, June 10, 2014. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa is earning kudos for its restrictions to prevent former state lawmakers from becoming lobbyists for two years after leaving office.

Overall, Iowa has the “best” revolving door policy — with a two-year cooling off period that applies to both legislative and executive officials and staff, and broadly prohibits both “lobbying activity” as well as “lobbying contacts” during the cooling off period — according to an analysis of state ethics laws by Public Citizen.

The report, “Slowing the Federal Revolving Door,” released this week can be read at https://bit.ly/2JYW6oe.

The restriction on the lawmaker-to-lobbyist transformation, now nearly three decades old, was among ethics changes the Iowa Legislature enacted following a 1990s scandal involving the deposit of local government property tax receipts in an investment scheme known as Iowa Trust.

Iowa was not the only state where money was lost, but no state was hit harder, according to the Los Angeles Times, which reported that 88 government agencies invested more than $70 million with the Iowa Trust, a client of California-based Institutional Treasury Management. The loss was due to changing market conditions, not theft.

Then-Senate President Joe Welsh, who had been a salesman for Iowa Trust for two years, stepped down from his leadership position while facing an ethics investigation.

In the wake of the loss, which one Iowa county official said was “like Pearl Harbor in Iowa,” the Legislature voted to require lawmakers to wait two years after leaving office to lobby the Legislature.

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“It was our response to a scandal,” recalled Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs, who was in the Legislature at the time and began lobbying lawmakers this year — two years to the day after his successor was sworn in.

The revolving door is a practice in which former public officials cash in on their government service by becoming lobbyists or strategic consultants after they leave government, then selling their inside connections and knowledge to corporate interests.

“This revolving door muddies whether public officials are representing the public interest or corporate interests,” said the report from Public Citizen, a 48-year-old not-for-profit consumer advocacy organization with 500,000 members that promotes the public interest in government.

“I think we wanted to make sure that no one had a job lined up when they were leaving the Legislature,” Rep. Dennis Cohoon, D-Burlington, said. The thinking was that, in two years, there would be some changes in members and leaders so a former lawmaker’s influence would be muted,

The government-to-lobbyist revolving door potentially is corrupting, Public Citizen said because public officials may be influenced by the implicit or explicit promise of a lucrative job in the private sector with an entity seeking a government contract or to shape public policy.

In addition, public officials-turned-lobbyists have access to lawmakers that is not available to others — access they can sell for a hefty price.

Although Iowa lawmakers approved the restrictions, it was a citizen commission that made the recommendation, said Gronstal, who served in the Iowa House and Senate from 1983 to 2017.

“It was the energy around the Iowa Trust scandal that led to the change,” he said.

However, he pointed out, the revolving door between the Legislature and the lobby were not to blame for the Iowa Trust debacle.

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“The scandal helped start this,” Gronstal said, “but the lobbying ban was people latching onto something they knew was going to pass, but unrelated.”

It was during that time the Legislature also adopted the rule that put a $2.99 limit on what lawmakers could accept from lobbyists.

“You couldn’t even take a cup of coffee after that,” recalled Cohoon, who arrived in the House in 1987.

Public Citizen cited Iowa and North Dakota for laws that prohibit public officials from “acting as a lobbyist” for two years after leaving public service. In Louisiana and Maryland, former public officials shall not “assist” another person for compensation in any transaction before the government for a period of time after leaving public service.

However, restrictions in other states are laxer. In some cases, former legislators can lobby the governor and executive agencies.

In Alabama, former House members can lobby senators immediately after leaving office and former senators can lobby the House. Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Wyoming have no restrictions, the analysis found.

Sen. Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, who was elected to the House following the Iowa Trust scandal, said changes to the revolving door restrictions never have been discussed in the time she has served on the Ethics Committee.

“I’m not opposed to reviewing laws to see if they can be improved,” she said, but it has never come up. She’s open to considering making the “cooling off” period longer than two years.

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Cohoon recalled there was some discussion at the time of making that period longer, possibly to match senators’ four-year terms.

Public Citizen noted Iowa does more than merely ban “lobbying contacts.” It also prohibits former officials from conducting any “lobbying activity” for compensation during the cooling-off period.

While true, Gronstal said the law has its limitations.

“They can say, ‘I don’t lobby. I give advice,’” he said. “They don’t come to the Legislature. They talk to someone who talks to legislators.”

The law also prohibits people engaged in policy-making decisions from lobbying within the two-year period.

“But senior staff say, ‘I never made any decision — it was the legislators who made decisions,’” he explained.

Overall, however, Gronstal believes that as the law relates to legislators, “I think people are satisfied.”

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

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