Iowa State Auditor Accuses Republicans Of ‘Corrupt’ Attempt To Block His Investigations

Inside the fight over “the worst pro-corruption bill in Iowa history.”
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds at a rally.
Governor Kim Reynolds (R-IA) waves to the crowd during a campaign event at Sioux Gateway Airport on November 3, 2022 in Sioux City, Iowa. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)
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Iowa’s governor, Republican Kim Reynolds, signed a new law on Thursday evening that will significantly restrict the ability of the state auditor — Iowa’s top watchdog — to perform his duties. State Auditor Rob Sand (D) responded with a blistering statement describing the legislation as “the worst pro-corruption bill in Iowa history.”

“It will allow insiders to play fast and loose with Iowans’ tax dollars because those very same people will be able to deny the Auditor’s Office access to the records necessary to expose them,” said Sand. “As Assistant Attorney General, I prosecuted criminal cases for seven years. This is akin to letting the defendant decide what evidence the judge and jury are allowed to see.”

In the weeks before Reynolds signed the bill, Sand barnstormed the state drumming up opposition to the bill. And, in an interview with TPM earlier this week, he described it as an assault on values “essential to our Constitution” that would make Iowa “an outlier by far” in terms of transparency. Sand also warned it is part of a troubling undemocratic trend that can be seen nationwide. 

“This is a fundamentally American thing. Some people had this crazy idea a couple hundred years ago that we didn’t need a king or a queen telling us what to do and, in fact, that was too much power for one person,” he added. “So, we should have checks and balances and here they are removing them. That should be alarming to everybody.”

Critics have cast the measure as an attempt to muzzle Sand, who is the only Democratic statewide elected official and widely discussed as a potential future gubernatorial candidate. Sand has also conducted aggressive investigations of Reynolds’ office. However, rather than a partisan or personal matter, Sand sees the legislation as coming in conjunction with a broader assault on transparency and good governance as Iowa has shifted to the right in the Trump era. 

The legislation, Senate File 478, would prevent the auditor from accessing any information that could be deemed private. It also would strip the auditor’s power to issue subpoenas to government entities that are being investigated. Instead of going through the courts, those claims would go through a board of arbitration composed of two members named by the offices where records were being sought and one member appointed by the governor.

“The idea that, once an audit is underway, that the auditor is going to be denied access to records is fundamentally opposed to the very purpose of an audit,” Sand said.

The legislation was approved by both chambers of the legislature in April. Sand said he suspects the governor was involved in “negotiating the final version.” Reynolds’ office did not respond to a request for comment about any role her team may have had in crafting the legislation or Sand’s criticism of it. For his part, Sand believes there is a simple reason the current administration wants to limit his power to investigate them. 

“The genesis of this is, in my first term we uncovered more waste, fraud, and abuse than any other state auditor ever had, a record amount,” said Sand. “There are people who did not like that. And then, the other piece of it that makes it easy to get other members of the legislature to go along is, I happen to be a Democrat.”

While Iowa long had a reputation as a purple state with an independent streak, since 2016, it has lurched dramatically towards the right. Republicans now control both legislative chambers and the state’s entire congressional delegation. Sand, who won his last race narrowly, is the last remaining Democratic statewide elected official. 

Along with Senate File 478, the legislation that passed in the state’s most recent session included GOP culture war priorities including a ban on gender-affirming care, limits to funding for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, and a so-called “bathroom bill” that would prevent people from using school restrooms that do not correspond with the gender they were assigned at birth. 

These fights over social issues tend to dominate the headlines, but Iowa may show something else that is becoming a feature of the modern right wing. Alongside the cultural battles, Sand believes Reynolds and other Republicans in the state are consolidating authority and eroding democratic norms. In his conversation with TPM, Sand pointed out instances of the legislature passing measures late at night and “logrolling” — a practice where unpopular measures are bundled with other bills — and a law signed by the governor that allows the state attorney general to take over a criminal prosecution without being asked to by local county attorneys. 

“A lot of this has to do with centralizing power and removing checks and balances,” Sand said. 

To Sand, some of the changes wrought by GOP leadership in the state are antithetical to Iowa’s values. 

“We were the first state to create a non-partisan redistricting committee in the 1960s. We did that way before it was cool. In the 1980’s we created a non-partisan judicial nominating system that really has historically been one of the crown jewels of the country’s systems for selecting judges,” Sand said. “That kind of anti-partisanship and desire to focus on solving problems …  it is a part of Iowa’s culture and, I think, we are just in a moment right now where the handful of Republicans that are in charge of the state have forgotten that or they personally don’t care.”

When asked if he tied these anti-Democratic tendencies to the rise of former President Trump or the far-right ideologies flourishing on the internet, Sand said, “Yes, and yes.” 

“Iowa is a part of this country,” he explained. “We are not immune from the changes that are happening in other parts of the country and I think it’s simple enough to say it that way. What you call it, and where it goes from here, history will tell us in the future.” 

Some Democrats have cast the proposals related to the auditor as a politically motivated attack on Sand. However, Sand rejects the notion this is simply a question of partisanship alone. 

“I don’t think that’s the only motivation. If I was a Republican who was willing to do my job and go after people who had wasted taxpayer money, I think they still might be doing this. It would be harder to get members of their party to go along,” said Sand, adding, “Similarly, if I was a Democrat that just was quiet as a churchmouse and just kept my head down, I don’t think they would care.”

Sand, whose investigations found Reynolds misspent COVID relief funds on her own staff, said that’s not his style. 

“I actually care about this stuff and I try to have the office be active,” he explained. “A huge piece of checks and balances is deterrence and you have to have someone in this role be assertive about it in order to deter wrongdoing.”

Sand is also adamant that his work as auditor has not been partisan. 

“We have issued reports that have exonerated Republicans, at times including the governor. We’ve also issued reports that have been critical, so, you know, we’ve found that the governor spent twenty million dollars of CARES Act funds on a software program for state government and that plainly didn’t qualify. We also found that she put half a million dollars into her staff in the governor’s office and that that didn’t qualify,” Sands said. “Conversely, we found that, in fact, her administration did not cook the books when it came to COVID testing data, that the Republican sheriff of Woodbury County … did not have anything underhanded going on with the sale of vehicles from his office and also criticized the work of the Democratic county auditor of Scott County.”

Sand also insists ambition isn’t part of the picture. He brushed off the idea that he is considering a run for governor. 

“Honestly there were a lot of people convinced that I was running for governor in 2022. I ran for re-election,” Sand said with a laugh. “Show me someone in statewide office anywhere in the United States who got elected at 36 that people didn’t say, ‘Oh, they’re ambitious.’”

As he made the rounds fighting the bill in the weeks before it was signed by the governor, Sand pointed to opposition to the measure from the bipartisan National State Auditors Association. He also has the support of conservatives including a handful of Republicans in the legislature and Republican former U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker. Sand has also stressed the fact that the right- wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has model legislation that would do “the opposite” of SF478 and that non-partisan analysts have determined the measure could cost Iowa $12 billion in federal funding

Sand also notes that the impact of this legislation goes beyond his office. By removing the auditor’s subpoena power and effectively allowing disputes over records to be settled by the governor and her appointees, the legislation could erode the role of the state’s courts. 

“The really important thing that a lot of people miss about this bill is, it’s not just an attack on the auditor’s office. It also removes an important part of the Iowa judicial system,” Sand said. 

Overall, Sand suggested the legislation is a worrying sign of creeping authoritarianism in his state. 

“If authoritarianism is destroying checks and balances and consolidating power into a single place, then I don’t know how else you would describe this,” Sand said. “It’s corrupt. It’s short-sighted.” 

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