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Legislature powerless to initiate probe of disclosure violations without specific, formal complaints
Despite giving itself authority over disclosure reports for legislative parties paid for by lobbyists, neither the House nor the Senate ethics committees have the power to initiate investigations into violations.
In order to open a legislative investigation, a third party must file a formal ethics complaint.
This process has come under scrutiny of late after the Iowa Pharmacy Association failed to file a disclosure report for a function it held in February attended by 20 lawmakers and Gov. Chet Culver until after reporters began questions about the party – five months late.
Iowa law dictates that lobbyists file disclosure reports within five business days following the date of receptions they host during a legislative session where lawmakers are invited.
In response to the news that legislators are unable to initiate an investigation into violations of campaign law, Des Moines activist organization Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement announced Wednesday that they have filed a formal complaint against the Iowa Pharmacy Association with the chief clerk of the House and secretary of the Senate.
“We shouldn’t have to jump through this many hoops to get people to follow the law,” said Adam Mason, an organizer with Iowa CCI. “But legislators aren’t able to do it.”
Iowa CCI’s initial research has uncovered 26 additional late-filing disclosure violations by lobbyist groups during the 2009 legislative session. This amount represents nearly one-third of the 90 reports that were filed in 2009. Of those late reports, 11 were filed more than two months late, Mason said.
“We are also requesting this past sessions social calendar, so we can assess how many lobbyists and associations have not filed,” Mason said. “I’m sure we are going to find many more groups that haven’t filed, and we will look into filing complaints against those groups as well.”
Before 2005, forms were filed with the nonpartisan Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board (IECDB). The board’s staff would also check the social calendar and call groups to make sure reports were filed on time.
The law was changed in 2005, giving authority to legislative ethics committees. At that time, the IECDB discontinued the practice of ensuring the prompt filing of reports, since it lost enforcement jurisdiction.
Since the law changed, the number of reports filed has gone down, from 101 in 206 to 90 this year.
The other difference, according to the state’s campaign law, is the IECDB can investigate an issue on its own motion, according to Charlie Smithson, the board’s executive director. The legislative ethics committees do not have that power.
Section 68B.31 of Iowa’s campaign law lays out the powers, responsibilities and format of the legislative ethics committees. It can prepare rules relating to lobbyists and lobbying activities, issue non-binding advisory opinions interpreting the intent of constitutional and statutory provisions, recommend legislation and hear complaints against legislators or lobbyists.
That means a third party would have to discover a violation to campaign law and file a complaint for a group to suffer any penalty for its indiscretion.
Mason called for the legislature to give oversight authority back to the IECDB, who he said did an admirable job of policing these events over the years.
“Right now its like the fox guarding the hen house,” he said. “It’s just crazy.”
In addition to returning authority to the IECDB, Mason’s group is calling for campaign contribution limits, public financing of elections and for tougher enforcement when a law is broken.
“We’re allowing lobbyists to wine and dine our lawmakers and basically buy influence,” Mason said.