CORONAVIRUS

Iowa sent COVID-19 testing help to governor's donors

Reynolds: 'Make no apologies' for helping companies in need

Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a Nov. 19, 2020, news conference in Jo
Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak during a Nov. 19, 2020, news conference in Johnston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

JOHNSTON — Gov. Kim Reynolds’ administration arranged coronavirus testing for employees at the suburban office of a large pork company whose owners are her top donors, underscoring allegations that her wealthy supporters have received special treatment.

The Iowa Department of Public Health coordinated the July 13 testing outside the West Des Moines office that houses the headquarters of Iowa Select Farms and its charity, the company confirmed Wednesday.

Iowa Select is one of the nation’s largest pork producers, with farms across Iowa. Owners Jeff and Deb Hansen have donated nearly $300,000 to Reynolds’ gubernatorial campaigns, including a $175,000 check in 2017 and a $50,000 gift last month, records show.

The testing occurred at an office used by white-collar employees of the company and the Hansens’ foundation.

Company spokeswoman Jen Sorenson said Iowa Select reached out to the governor’s office seeking help after “a number of individuals were found to be potentially exposed to a positive employee.” She said the governor’s office referred the company to the public health department, which determined a rapid-response state team was appropriate.

“We are grateful to all of Iowa’s public health officials that have provided guidance, testing, and assistance throughout this challenging time,” she said.

Sorenson said 32 employees were tested, but would not say whether the Hansens were.

Polk County Supervisor Matt McCoy, a Democrat who has helped guide the pandemic response in Iowa’s largest county, said he has never heard of the state arranging drive-through testing at a corporate office, noting its focus was on congregate living facilities and meat packing plants.

He said individuals had broader access to testing by July and companies could pay for mass testing, but the Iowa Select effort looked like special treatment.

“When they call, she’s going to take the call,” McCoy said. “It’s impossible to divorce campaign finance from policy, but this is clearly a case where it demonstrates why certain people receive certain treatment and others don’t.”

Democratic State Auditor Rob Sand began an investigation Tuesday of the state’s deployment of testing resources.

Reynolds, a Republican, said Wednesday any criticism was unjustified and that the state provided testing resources to more than 60 companies.

“If you called and wanted to try to facilitate a way to get your employees tested so that you could ensure them that they were working in a safe environment, that’s what companies were doing,” she said. “We were doing everything we could to help facilitate that and I will make no apologies for doing that.”

The state has not released a full list of companies that received testing help, citing a provision in state law that shields the identities of businesses linked to outbreaks of disease.

Liberal journalist Laura Belin reported Sunday that Reynolds fast-tracked testing for employees at a Waverly machine parts manufacturing company partially owned by one of her donors, Bruce Rastetter, in May. Belin’s blog published an email showing the county health department had been told its request for testing at GMT Corp. would likely be denied because only one employee was infected.

Then, records show that Rastetter or someone else at his company, Summit Agricultural Group, which owns GMT, contacted the governor directly. A “strike team” involving members of the Iowa National Guard conducted testing shortly thereafter.

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Rastetter, an influential GOP businessman who donated $25,000 to Reynolds’ campaign last month, hasn’t returned emails seeking comment.

A Bremer County administrator complained in an email that the county requested testing for its health workers and nursing home residents and hadn’t heard back from the state in three weeks, “but a multimillion dollar corporation like GMT puts in a request and gets approved in a day.”

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