Government

Joni Ernst, Theresa Greenfield backers trade charges over ethics

As Senate race tightens, 'dark money' at issue, but do voters care?

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, speaks during a May 6 Senate committee hearing in Washington, D.C. Her campaign and the Iowa Re
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, speaks during a May 6 Senate committee hearing in Washington, D.C. Her campaign and the Iowa Republican Party are faulting Democrat Theresa Greenfield’s role in trying to put an Aldi’s in Windsor Heights and the Greenfield campaign’s connections to the Senate Majority super PAC. (Associated Press)
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Iowa Democrats and a special interest group say Sen. Joni Ernst has “put a for sale sign on our democracy” with fundraising practices that show a disregard for the law.

They point to fundraisers for Ernst’s Jobs, Opportunities and New Ideas PAC — JONI PAC — which they charge violate rules on coordination between campaigns and so-called dark money groups that can raise unlimited amounts of money and do not have to disclose the names of donors.

The person handling the JONI PAC fundraisers also works for Iowa Values, a political nonprofit supporting Ernst’s re-election, they state.

Iowa Republicans counter with charges that Ernst’s Democratic challenger, Des Moines real estate executive Theresa Greenfield, displaced “mom-and-pop” businesses to make way for an Aldi’s store that city officials later rejected.

The back-and-forth over those issues has escalated in the contest that observers say could tip the balance of power in the U.S. Senate.

The Cook Political Report, Inside Elections and the Center for Politics’ Crystal Ball rate the race “lean Republican.”

Recent polling shows Greenfield slightly ahead of Ernst but within the margin of error of the polls.

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Ernst’s approval rating has dropped among Iowa voters, which Democrats tie to voter disapproval of the Ernst campaign’s coordination with Iowa Values, despite campaign finance rarely being identified as a priority when voters are polled.

‘Dark money abuse’

The allegations are a continuation of charges Democrats made earlier about the Ernst campaign and Iowa Values.

Political nonprofits are common and legal as long as they keep their activities separate from the candidates they support and have some “social welfare” agenda in addition to political goals.

In Ernst’s case, says Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United, which has endorsed Greenfield, the coordination between Ernst and Iowa Values is not only illegal but shameless.

Ernst’s dark money arrangement “stands out for its brazen disregard for the law,” Muller said during a call with the Iowa Democratic Party. “The formation and coordination with this dark money group is a serious breach of public trust and campaign finance laws.”

It’s “the clearest instance of dark money abuse I’ve seen from an Iowa politician ... nothing short of plain-as-day political corruption,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Mark Smith said.

old claims

The Republican Party of Iowa responded that End Citizens United and Democrats are recycling old claims reported by the Associated Press in 2019 in an effort to divert attention from Greenfield’s business record and ethics problems.

The party and the Ernst campaign have called on Greenfield to explain her company’s displacement of small businesses to make way for the German grocery chain, Aldi. Her development plan was rejected by Windsor Heights but after the businesses had been forced out.

Aaron Britt, spokesman for the Republican Party of Iowa, said Greenfield also is the subject of a Federal Election Commission ethics complaint for “coordinated illegal ads” with corporate funded dark money groups. The allegation is the Greenfield campaign posts video and messages in the public domain that the Senate Majority super PAC then used in ads or fundraising appeals.

action unlikely

It’s uncertain, perhaps unlikely, that the IRS and FEC will hear or render decisions on the complaints over Ernst’s coordination with Iowa Values and Greenfield’s coordination with the Senate Majority PAC.

The FEC often splits along party lines, and the IRS has shown little interest in regulating dark money groups.

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Former FEC legal counsels are split on whether the Ernst–Iowa Values relationship is illegal. One called it “really questionable” while the other viewed the fundraising as permissible.

In the past, the FEC has found that sharing information, as Greenfield’s campaign is alleged to have done, was not sufficient to violate coordination standards.

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

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