Republican Senate Candidate Joni Ernst could be in some hot water over county public contracts awarded to her father’s company when she served as the county’s auditor. Ernst, who is running against Democrat Bruce Braley for Iowa’s open US Senate seat, served as the Montgomery County auditor from 2004 to 2011, when she was elected as a state senator. In 2009 and 2010, Ernst’s father’s company, Culver Construction, was awarded six county contracts worth over $215,000. Last week, the American Democracy Legal Fund filed a complaint with Iowa Attorney General Tim Miller, asking him if there was a clear conflict of interest in the awarding of the contracts.
Salon ran a piece by Luke Brinker about the potential conflict of interest earlier this week. Brinker argued that based on a reading of the laws of Iowa, it is quite possible that Ernst was indeed in violation of conflict of interest codes. Brinker wrote the following in his article:
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.
On Wednesday evening, KCCI 8 in Des Moines ran a story about a complaint that had been filed by the Iowa Democratic Party earlier in the day. The complaint is similar to the one filed by the ADLF, in that it claims that Ernst broke Iowa’s conflict of interest code during her time as county auditor. Like the Salon piece, KCCI pointed out the contracts in question that were awarded to Ernst’s dad. Ernst’s camp responded to KCCI, claiming that this is a “frivolous attempt to prop up a desperate campaign.”
Below is video of the story, courtesy of KCCI:
Currently, this is one of the closest races in the country. The last four polls that have been released all have the candidates within two points of each other. The last one released shows it as a dead heat. Ernst has branded herself as a Tea Party darling in the mold of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. She rose to national prominence with a campaign ad where she claimed that she grew up castrating hogs on a farm and that she’d go to Washington to “make ’em squeal.”
Since then, she’s had Palin. Mitt Romney and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), among others, stop through Iowa and campaign for her. She’s also been helped by a gaffe Braley made earlier this year where he seemed to insult farmers, which is a big no-no in corn country. However, despite the GOP pulling out the big guns for her, it appears that Ernst’s extremist ideology has limited her appeal. In a swing state like Iowa, going far to the right may not be the best course of action. This potential scandal, if it has legs, might be the tipping point for voters and lead them over to the Democrat.
Justin Baragona is the Managing Editor at Politicus Sports as well as Senior Editor at PoliticusUSA. He was a political writer for 411Mania.com before joining PoliticusUSA. Politically, Justin considers himself a liberal but also a realist and pragmatist. Currently, Justin lives in St. Louis, MO and is married. Besides writing, he also runs his own business after spending a number of years in the corporate world. You can follow Justin on Twitter either with his personal handle (@justinbaragona) or the Sports site’s (@PoliticusSports).