The Iowa Democratic Party is asking the county attorney in Red Oak to review whether Joni Ernst had an alleged conflict of interest in the 215-thousand dollars worth of county contracts awarded to her father’s company when Ernst was a county official. Ernst is the Iowa Republican Party’s 2014 nominee for the U.S. Senate, facing Democrat Bruce Braley in one of the closest senate races in the country. Former Iowa Attorney General Bonnie Campbell — who was chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party in the late 1980s — says according to state law, a county officer like Ernst “shall not” have a “direct or indirect interest” in a county contract.
“Iowans expect their public officials whether they’re running for local office or the United States Senate, to do never use the power of their office to benefit themselves, their friends or their families,” Campbell says. A spokeswoman for Ernst says the construction contracts were subject to a public competitive bidding process and it was the county supervisors who voted to award the contracts, not Ernst — plus Ernst does not have a financial stake in her father’s company. Campbell, a lawyer who served one term as Iowa’s attorney general, says by her reading of Iowa law, a county official’s “immediate family members” — including their parents — are not to get county contracts.
“Despite that I think pretty clear statement in the Iowa Code, Senator Ernst’s father, Richard Culver, received $215,000-plus dollars in county contracts for his construction company, Culver Construction,” Campbell says. “This was of course the same time his daughter was auditor.” Last Friday, a Washington, D.C.-based group called the “American Democracy Legal Fund” asked Iowa’s current attorney general to issue an opinion as to whether Ernst had a conflict of interest when her father’s company got those contracts while she served as Montgomery County Auditor. The Ernst campaign says Braley’s “liberal Washington allies” are making “frivolous” allegations to “prop up Braley’s desperate campaign.”
The state’s attorney general this week said the dispute falls under the jurisdiction of the Montgomery County Attorney. Today (Wednesday) Iowa Democratic Party officials asked the county attorney to rule on the matter. Staff in Montgomery County Attorney Bruce Swanson’s office say he won’t be in the office until late Friday. Swanson, a Republican from Red Oak, is seeking reelection this year and does not have a Democratic opponent.