Kudos to Lachlan Markay at The Daily Beast for capturing this:
Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is running for reelection in what will likely be one of the nation’s most closely watched Senate contests this year. But her campaign has shielded a key bit of financial information from voters and the public: who she’s paying to run her re-election effort, and how much.
Through a subtle accounting maneuver, Ernst’s campaign has for months avoided reporting the names of the campaign staffers on her payroll, how many of those staffers there are, and the extent of payments they’ve received. Instead, the campaign appears to have grouped all of its employees together in large lump-sum payments to a staffing and human resources company it uses to administer its payroll.
It’s an arrangement that campaign finance experts say may have violated the spirit, and possibly the letter, of Federal Election Commission rules on the disclosure of payments to campaign staffers. The Ernst campaign disagrees, saying it fully complied with disclosure requirements, even as other Senate campaigns that employ the same payroll management firm have disclosed far more about the sums steered to their individual staffers.
The campaign nevertheless told PAY DIRT on Thursday that it would amend FEC reports for the last three quarters to clearly spell out which of its staffers had been paid, and how much they’d received.
“I advised the campaign that the way they currently report the employment costs is in accordance with FEC requirements,” wrote Ron Jacobs, a partner at the law firm Venable and the campaign’s attorney, in an emailed statement. “The campaign has decided, out of an abundance of transparency, to amend the reports.”
Ernst’s campaign initially had disclosed names of individuals on its payroll. But it shifted its reporting practices to a more opaque system last year. The shift happened to occur just as a new dark money group ramped up to support her reelection bid. Ernst has drawn scrutiny over her work with political consultants who are simultaneously aiding that group, with which the campaign is restricted from coordinating.
It’s arrangements like that, experts say, that show the need for detailed reporting of the staffers on a campaign’s payroll. Without it, they say, the public has no way of knowing if a campaign is employing someone whose identity might be of public interest—say a family member or a business associate—or who also happens to have worked with allied groups with which the campaign is legally restricted from coordinating.
This became an issue late last year as reported by the Des Moines Register:
An outside group founded by top political aides to Sen. Joni Ernst has worked closely with the Iowa Republican to raise money and boost her reelection prospects, a degree of overlap that potentially violates the law, documents obtained by the Associated Press show.
Iowa Values, a political nonprofit that is supposed to be run independently, was co-founded in 2017 by Ernst's longtime consultant, Jon Kohan. It shares a fundraiser, Claire Holloway Avella, with the Ernst campaign. And a condo owned by a former aide — who was recently hired to lead the group — was used as Iowa Values' address at a time when he worked for her.
Political nonprofits are often referred to as “dark money” groups because they can raise unlimited sums and are not required to reveal their donors. But they must take steps to keep their activities separate from the candidates they support. Additionally, while such tax-exempt groups can do political work, they can’t make it their primary purpose.
The documents reviewed by the AP, including emails and a strategy memo, not only make clear that the group’s aim is securing an Ernst win in 2020, but they also show Ernst and her campaign worked in close concert with Iowa Values.
Ernst is hardly the first politician to push campaign finance law boundaries. But the revelation could complicate her efforts to fend off a Democratic challenger in a closely watched race next year.
Ernst came from obscurity in 2013 and was elected to the Senate thank to the Koch Brothers money. Now it looks like her illegal campaign contributions are coming back to haunt her. Ernst’s top opponent, Theresa Greenfield (D. IA), isn’t wasting time hitting Ernst on this:
Ã¢ÂÂThe Ernst campaign is obscuring who it is paying and when … which makes it harder to detect if staffers are simultaneously working for the campaign's dark money arm.Ã¢ÂÂ @joniernst caught breaking the law AGAIN. Iowans deserve better. #IASen https://t.co/9ZEcf8KgxsÃ¢ÂÂ Theresa Greenfield (@GreenfieldIowa) May 1, 2020
By the way, Greenfield picked up a huge endorsement last week:
The Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO, which represents more than 50,000 workers in Iowa, announced Monday it is endorsing Greenfield in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary.Greenfield is a Des Moines real estate businesswoman.The union typically supports Democratic candidates for federal office, but does not typically endorse candidates during a contested primary.“Theresa’s support of issues important to working Iowans makes her a compelling alternative to the current Senator who routinely votes against the interests of Iowans in Washington and spins the outcomes back here in Iowa,” Iowa AFL-CIO president Ken Sagar said in a news release.