Tea Party Senate campaign's response on contracts skirts conflict of interest issue

After Salon reports on contracts that went to Joni Ernst's father, her campaign dances around key question

Published October 8, 2014 5:37PM (EDT)

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

The campaign of Iowa GOP Senate nominee Joni Ernst is speaking out in response to questions raised about country contracts awarded to Ernst's father while Ernst served as Montgomery County, Iowa auditor. But the campaign's response skirts the question at the heart of the story -- whether the contracts violated Iowa conflict of interest rules prohibiting contracts for immediate family members of any county employee.

Salon reported yesterday that Culver Construction, a construction company owned by Ernst's father Richard Culver, won $215,665 in Montgomery County contracts during Ernst's tenure as county auditor. Iowa's state code stipulates, however, that “[a]n officer or employee of a county shall not have an interest, direct, or indirect, in a contract with that county.” That conflict of interest provision applies if at least 5 percent of a company’s outstanding stock is owned by either a county employee or a county employee's immediate family member – including a parent.

Ernst's campaign did not respond to Salon's requests for comment on the story. However, in a story published by the eastern Iowa Gazette on Wednesday, Ernst spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel commented on the contracts and the complaint filed by a liberal legal group over the conflict of interest concerns.

“The fact is that the bid process in Montgomery County is open and transparent. Bids are delivered sealed, opened in a public meeting and awarded to the lowest bidder, and the county auditor plays no role in decision making,” Hamel told the Gazette in a statement.

But the conflict of interest questions surrounding the contracts don't stem from concerns over whether they were awarded in an "open and transparent" process or whether Ernst unduly influenced the decision to award contracts. (Salon's report noted that the Montgomery county auditor doesn't vote on contracts, but part of Ernst's job did entail soliciting bids and receiving contract proposals.) Instead, the issue at hand is that a company owned by a county employee's father received more than $200,000 in county contracts, despite relevant state and county standards. Hamel's statement dodges that issue entirely.

The conflict of interest complaint, filed by the American Democracy Legal Fund, has been forwarded to the Montgomery County Attorney's office by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller.

By Luke Brinker

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2014 Elections Contracts Counties Gretchen Hamel Iowa Joni Ernst Midterm Elections Tea Party U.s. Senate