For Months Ernst Shielded The Names of Her Staffers, Raising More Questions About Ties Between Campaign and a Dark Money Group Founded by her Top Political Aides

A new Daily Beast report details how Senator Joni Ernst used a “subtle accounting maneuver” that campaign finance experts say “may have violated the spirit, and possibly the letter” of the law to conceal the names of her staffers, just as a dark money group founded by her top political aides, Iowa Values, “ramped up to support her reelection bid.” 

Ernst’s campaign last year stopped itemizing payroll disbursements to staff around the same time of alleged illegal coordination between Iowa Values and her re-election campaign as extensively documented by the Associated Press in December. Her re-election effort had “drawn scrutiny over her work with political consultants who are simultaneously aiding that group” – spurring a slew of FEC complaints that Ernst was breaking the law.

Brendan Fischer of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center put it bluntly: “They can’t do that,” and said that Ernst’s switch from disclosure to secrecy was unlike any he’d “ever seen.”

“Senator Ernst’s actions are the very worst of Washington politics – potentially breaking the law in order to shield herself from accountability with voters,” said Jeremy Busch, Iowa Democratic Party spokesperson. “The Daily Beast’s report raises more questions about the extent of the coordination between her dark money group and her re-election campaign. It’s more clear than ever that Senator Ernst has no ethical line she won’t cross in her attempt to salvage re-election.”

Daily Beast: Joni Ernst Is Backing Down After Hiding the Names of Her Campaign Staff

By: Lachlan Markay

April 30, 2020

  • Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is running for reelection in what will likely be one of the nation’s closest watched Senate contests this year. But her campaign has shielded a key bit of financial information from voters and the public: who she’s paying to run her re-election effort, and how much.
  • Through a subtle accounting maneuver, Ernst’s campaign has for months avoided reporting the names of the campaign staffers on her payroll, how many of those staffers there are, and the extent of payments they’ve received. Instead, the campaign appears to have grouped all of its employees together in large lump-sum payments to a staffing and human resources company it uses to administer its payroll.
  • It’s an arrangement that campaign finance experts say may have violated the spirit, and possibly the letter, of Federal Election Commission rules on the disclosure of payments to campaign staffers. The Ernst campaign disagrees, saying it fully complied with disclosure requirements, even as other Senate campaigns that employ the same payroll management firm have disclosed far more about the sums steered to their individual staffers.
  • The campaign nevertheless told PAY DIRT on Friday that it would amend FEC reports for the last three quarters to clearly spell out which of its staffers had been paid, and how much they’d received.
  • Ernst’s campaign initially had disclosed names of individuals on its payroll. But it shifted its reporting practices to a more opaque system last year. The shift happened to occur just as a new dark money group ramped up to support her reelection bid. Ernst has drawn scrutiny over her work with political consultants who are simultaneously aiding that group, with which the campaign is restricted from coordinating.
  • “They can’t do that,” Brendan Fischer, the director of Federal and FEC reforms at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan ethics group, said of the payroll non-disclosure setup that the Ernst campaign is now ditching. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a campaign stop reporting any payments to individual staffers, and instead just report lump sum payments to a payroll company.”
  • To underscore the importance of that more detailed reporting structure, Fischer pointed to recent controversy over a dark money group called Iowa Values that is supporting Ernst’s reelection bid. Iowa Values was co-founded by one of Ernst’s fundraising consultants and a longtime adviser who works for the firm Jamestown Associates, which received nearly $100,000 in consulting fees from the Ernst campaign last year.
  • In July 2019, the fundraising consultant, Claire Holloway Avella, hit up a donor for a $50,000 contribution to Iowa Values, according to emails reported by the Associated Press in December. The emails indicated that Ernst herself had introduced Halloway Avella to the donor.
  • Fischer said the controversy over Iowa Values nonetheless shows why more detailed reporting of payments to staffers is important. “The Ernst campaign is obscuring who it is paying and when,” he said, “which makes it harder to detect if staffers are simultaneously working for the campaign’s dark money arm.”