IOWA LEGISLATURE

Watchdog files lawsuit against group backing Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst

Republican Senate candidate Sen. Joni Ernst speaks to supporters at an election night rally, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in D
Republican Senate candidate Sen. Joni Ernst speaks to supporters at an election night rally, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES — An election watchdog group has filed a federal lawsuit that claims an Iowa-based nonprofit violated election laws by failing to register as a political committee that spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to support Republican Sen. Joni Ernst’s re-election.

Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based campaign finance watchdog group, filed the lawsuit Friday in Washington. It had filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission in December 2019 after the Associated Press reported Ernst’s work with Iowa Values to raise money and build an electoral “firewall” potentially violated campaign finance and tax law.

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to declare that Iowa Values became a political committee as of June 2019 and order the group to register, file documents and provide information on fundraising and expenditures.

The lawsuit also seeks a civil penalty against Iowa Values, along with court and attorney fee costs.

Ernst’s staff declined to comment and Derek Flowers, a former Ernst campaign manager who was initially named to lead Iowa Values, said the lawsuit “rehashes the same tired allegations that CLC made to the FEC in 2019.”

“Iowa Values has complied with the campaign finance laws and will continue to defend itself against these frivolous actions,” said Flowers, now a partner in a Washington-based public affairs firm.

The CLC filed an administrative complaint with the Federal Election Commission in December 2019, but the commission failed to take action for more than a year. In October a federal judge issued an order demanding the FEC take action on the complaint by Jan. 12, but the agency did not respond. On Feb. 11 the judge granted CLC the right to sue under the Federal Election Campaign Act.

Political nonprofits often are referred to as “dark money” groups because they can raise unlimited sums and do not have to disclose their donors. But such tax-exempt groups are forbidden from making political activity their primary purpose.

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The complaint requested an FEC investigation. It also argued that internal Iowa Values documents revealed by the AP showed the group’s major purpose is political activity, likely violating the conditions of its tax-exempt status while breaking campaign finance laws that obligate the group to register as a political committee and disclose its donors.

The FEC, which must have at least four members on the commission to conduct business, has not had a quorum for much of the last two years since former President Donald Trump failed to make appointments.

In December the Senate confirmed three Trump appointees to return the commission to full staffing.

In the lawsuit the CLC claims Iowa Values was formed in June 2019 to support Ernst’s campaign and ran paid advertising through Google and Facebook promoting Ernst as a leader. Advertising continued up until the November election.

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