A top aide on billionaire Tom Steyer’s campaign offered Iowa politicians cash in exchange for their endorsements, The Associated Press reports.
Former state House Speaker Pat Murphy, a top adviser to Steyer’s Iowa campaign, offered campaign contributions to several politicians if they agreed to endorse Steyer's White House bid, some of the lawmakers told the AP. Such payments are not necessarily illegal, but they could violate campaign finance laws if they are not disclosed, the outlet noted, adding that there is no evidence that any of the politicians accepted the money.
Tom Courtney a former Iowa state senator who is running for his old seat, told the AP that he received a “financial offer” from the campaign that “left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Iowa state Rep. Karin Derry told the outlet that Murphy did not offer her a specific amount of money but “made it clear” that she would “receive financial support if she backed Steyer.”
“It was presented more as, he has provided financial support to other down-ballot candidates who’ve endorsed him, and could do the same for you,” she said.
Multiple other politicians told the AP that they received similar offers.
Murphy claimed that the lawmakers’ concerns were simply the result of a “miscommunication” and the Steyer campaign told the AP that Murphy was not authorized to make such offers. The campaign added it was were unaware of Murphy’s efforts.
“As a former legislator, I know how tricky the endorsement process can be for folks in Iowa,” Murphy told the outlet. “It was never my intention to make my former colleagues uncomfortable, and I apologize for any miscommunication on my part.”
Courtney disputed Murphy’s claim that there was a miscommunication and told the outlet that he immediately rebuffed his offer.
“Tom, I know you’re running for Senate. I’m working for Tom Steyer,” Murphy told Courtney, according to the latter. “Now you know how this works. ...He said, ‘you help them, and they’ll help you.’”
“I said, ‘it wouldn’t matter if you’re talking monetary, there’s no amount. I don’t do that kind of thing,” Courtney recalled.
Steyer press secretary Alberto Lammers told the AP that Steyer has not made any contributions to any Iowa candidates and would not do so this year.
“Our campaign policy is clear that we will not engage in this kind of activity, and anyone who does is not speaking for the campaign or does not know our policy,” he said, adding that Steyer’s endorsements “are earned because of Tom’s campaign message.”
Steyer, who has spent millions of his own money to flood the Iowa airwaves with advertising that helped him make the stage for the last Democratic debate, has not earned many endorsements. Just one Iowa Democrat, former state Rep. Roger Thomas, has endorsed his campaign. The AP reported that campaign finance filings do not suggest that Steyer gave Thomas any contributions.
Campaign finance experts criticized the scheme described by the Iowa lawmakers.
“It’s legal if you disclose a payment for an endorsement on your campaign finance report,” former Federal Election Commission attorney Adav Noti told the AP. “It would be unlawful if you don’t disclose it, or you disclose it but try to hide who the recipient is, or try to hide what that purpose was.”
Former Iowa state Sen. Kent Sorenson was sentenced to 15 months in prison in 2017 over a similar scheme orchestrated by aides on former Texas Rep. Ron Paul’s 2012 Republican presidential campaign. Paul campaign chairman Jesse Benton, campaign manager John Tate and deputy campaign manager Dimitri Kesari were all convicted of hiding payments to Sorenson to switch his endorsement to Paul from Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, less than a week before the Iowa caucuses.
This is the second time in the last week that an aide to Steyer, who has spent $47.6 million of his own money on his bid, has been accused of wrongdoing.
The Democratic National Committee told the South Carolina Post & Courier on Friday that Steyer’s South Carolina deputy state director, Dwane Sims, had stolen campaign volunteer data from Sen. Kamala Harris’ campaign using an account that he still had from his previous job at the South Carolina Democratic Party. The DNC said it caught Sims trying to export the data and forced him to delete it. Sims was permanently banned by the DNC from accessing any Democratic Party systems.
Steyer’s campaign has apologized to the Harris campaign, Lammers claimed to the Post & Courier that it was the DNC’s fault because they “failed to limit access” to Sims after he left the job.
Lammers claimed that the campaign notified the DNC that Sims “inadvertently” downloaded the data because he did not realize he had logged into his old account.
DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa refuted that claim, pointing out that system data showed that Sims downloaded the file three minutes after he notified the party that he still had access, while Democratic officials were working to shut it down.
Harris’ campaign seized on the data theft in a fundraising email to supporters on Friday, The Hill reported.
"We got some outrageous news last night," the campaign said. "A staffer for Tom Steyer, a billionaire who has already spent tens of millions of his own dollars to boost his candidacy, stole our campaign’s data in South Carolina. Our organizers have spent months building one of the strongest operations in the state, so we were outraged to learn Steyer’s team had taken volunteer contacts — some of our campaign’s most valuable data — directly from the voter file."