EXCLUSIVE: Iowa Senate shocker -- contracts awarded to Joni Ernst's father raise conflict of interest questions

Father of GOP nominee won $200,000 in contracts when Joni Ernst was in office, despite conflict of interest rules

Published October 7, 2014 10:59AM (EDT)

Joni Ernst                          (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
Joni Ernst (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

A construction company owned by GOP Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst's father received more than $200,000 in county contracts while she served as auditor of Montgomery County, Iowa, despite a strict conflict of interest code governing the provision of contracts to family members of county officials.

A new review of records -- as well as an analysis of the Code of Iowa -- by Salon reveals that the nature of the contracts and how they were promulgated, may have violated relevant county standards.

Ernst is facing Democratic congressman Bruce Braley in a neck-and-neck race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. Polls show it as too close to call (with several polls finding Ernst with a small lead). Given the volatility of several Senate races this cycle, this particular campaign could potentially help decide which party controls the Senate.

Ernst was elected Montgomery County auditor in 2004, serving in that role until her 2011 election to the state Senate seat she currently holds. Among the duties a county auditor “may perform,” according to the Iowa State Association of County Auditors, are issuing contract bid notices and soliciting and receiving contract proposals. Minutes from an April 2007 Montgomery County Supervisors meeting – printed in the Red Oak Express – note Ernst’s involvement in county contracts, stating that Ernst would “work [the] issue” of advertising bids for a roofing project in the county.

The Iowa Code lays out stringent conflict of interest standards for county contracts. Chapter 331 of the code stipulates that “[a]n officer or employee of a county shall not have an interest, direct, or indirect, in a contract with that county.” The provision applies if 5 percent of a company’s outstanding stock is owned by either a county employee or an immediate family member – including a parent – of an employee.

Still, a search by Salon of Montgomery County records reveals that Culver Construction – a construction company owned by Ernst’s father, Richard Culver – received $215,665 in county contracts during Ernst’s tenure as auditor. The six contracts, all awarded between 2009 and 2010, included five totaling $204,794 from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for such projects as road and flood damage repairs.

County supervisors approved FEMA contracts for Culver ranging in size from an $8,960 grant in December 2010 for the repair of three flood-damaged sites to a $63,501 contract for secondary road construction in August 2009. Supervisors also approved FEMA contracts for Culver of $32,425, $40,428, and $59,480.

According to Montgomery County Supervisors minutes printed in the Red Oak Express, the supervisors unanimously approved Ernst's appointment as the county’s chief financial officer for federal and state assistance following flooding in Iowa on June 7, 2007. Ernst held the role concurrently with her position as county auditor.

Supervisors also awarded Culver a $10,871 contract for a Department of Homeland Security project in April 2010.

As county auditor, Ernst did not have a vote in approving contracts for Culver Construction or any other contractors. Still, the state code’s conflict of interest provision calls for contracts to be voided if any county “officer or employee” has an interest in the contractor.

Late last week, the Des Moines Register reported that American Democracy Legal Fund, a group founded by liberal media watchdog David Brock, has filed a complaint with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, seeking Miller’s opinion on whether Culver Construction’s contracts violated the state’s conflicts of interest law. The Register’s report did not list the details of Culver Construction’s contracts, noting only that they totaled $215,665. The details of the contracts are first being reported here, as is the relevant section of the code that pertains to potential conflicts.

As Ernst seeks to defeat Braley and retake a long-Democratic Senate seat, Culver Construction has ranked among her top campaign contributors. According to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, Ernst’s campaign has received $10,400 in donations from her father’s company.

Spokespersons for the Ernst and Braley campaigns did not respond to Salon’s requests for comment on this story.  

By Luke Brinker

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