DES MOINES — Iowa politicians routinely dip into campaign coffers to attend fundraisers and give hefty checks to political organizations, a review of state campaign finance reports shows.
But recent guidance from the Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board will limit their ability to do so in the future, said Megan Tooker, executive director of the group.
Prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court decision, board members issued an advisory opinion earlier this year that for the first time defines a charitable organization.
The board also makes it illegal to provide campaign cash to nonprofits that are considered social welfare groups, which support specific issues. The organizations, called 501(c)4s, do not have to publicly disclose their donors, who can give unlimited amounts of money, according to the Supreme Court’s decision.
Politicians still can give campaign funds to 501(c)3s, nonprofits that include public charities or private foundations. They are more transparent and must disclose more about their finances.
“From this point on, we are limiting charitable contributions,” Tooker said. “Our auditors have been educating candidates to let them know about the change moving forward.”
Despite putting limits on campaign spending, the state has yet to address the absence of regulations over when politicians can raise and spend funds.
A number of states prohibit fundraising after election cycles. Others require candidates to dissolve campaign organizations and donate or return money remaining in their bank accounts, which is the case in states like Montana.
“If they can get elected a move into the policy area, then the money they continue to raise during that process raises flags of why they are raising the money,” said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan nonprofit in Montana that tracks campaign funding. “Are they making policy for the benefit of the public or are they doing it for a donor’s interest?”
The Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure recent guidance could affect groups such as the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, which is a conservative Christian nonprofit that seeks “to educate and influence voters and politicians to keep their commitment to both liberty and law,” according to their website.
Previous contributors include Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who gave the group $1,500 during 2011. Secretary of State Matt Schultz gave $800 since his election in 2010, while State Auditor David Vaudt gave the coalition $1,100 from 2010 to 2011, according to campaign finance reports.
The nonprofit status of the coalition is unclear. It wasn’t listed on the Internal Revenue Service website and filings with the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office only specify it as a nonprofit. The organization’s website also lacked clarification.
Steve Scheffler, who heads the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition, said in a message that the group was neither a 501(c)3 or a 501(c)4. That contradicts media reports that refer to it as 501(c)4.
Campaign finance disclosure websites failed to turn up information regarding how much money the coalition — previously called the Iowa Christian Alliance — takes in each year or how they use it. The group, however, reportedly spent millions in a successful effort to remove three of Iowa’s Supreme Court justices after a ruling that made gay marriage legal, according to news reports.
“This is the kind of activity that the public needs to know about,” Bender said.
It’s not uncommon for politicians nationally to use their campaign funds to attend fundraisers for political groups or candidates. It helps them during an election year to gain greater recognition and support from constituents, Bender said.
In Iowa, for example, Branstad spent $66,500 on political contributions and tickets to fundraisers from the end of 2010 through 2011. Schultz and Vaudt spent $1,411 and $13,250, respectively, in the past two years on similar expenses.
Spokesmen for Branstad and Schultz did not return calls seeking comment. Vaudt was out of town and not available, according to his office.
Comparatively, Democrat Michael Fitzgerald, state treasurer, spent $430 since 2009 to attend four Iowa Democratic Party fundraisers.
“When a person is a candidate, anything they do to meet with constituents and other candidates is fair game,” Bender said. “Where you start getting into issues is when they are doing it outside of the campaign cycle.”
Contact Sheena Dooley at email@example.com.