DES MOINES – Employees and officials in state government’s executive branch would be required to report gifts, bequests and honoraria that they might receive in excess of $100 from a paid lobbyist or other restricted donors during a calendar year under a bill that cleared a Senate subcommittee Thursday.
Megan Tooker, executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, said she does not suspect abuses or violations of state laws governing contributions to government officials or employees, but she noted there currently are no reporting requirements for fees or expenses paid for speaking engagements, trade missions or other functions so her board doesn’t have a good handle about what’s actually happening or what level of remunerations are at play regarding exceptions to the state’s gift law.
Iowa law allows government employees and officials to receive gifts and honoraria from restricted donors under certain circumstances, but there’s no reporting requirement of that, Tooker said. There are 19 exceptions in the Iowa code that exempts certain activities – including a $3 limit on what legislators, statewide elected officials or other state employees may receive as a permissive gift.
“There are several exceptions where you could potentially be receiving rather large gifts from a restricted donor, which is perfectly permissible under the law,” she noted. “But we think that maybe allowing the public and the Legislature to see exactly what is being accepted is a good thing and then if you start seeing some reports where you think maybe we need to amend the statute to prohibit some things.”
Senate Study Bill 1010 would establish a $100 yearly reporting standard for executive branch officials and employees, their spouses and immediate family members that state regulators could monitor and enforce, she said.
“We would just like a standard so we can enforce it,” she told a three-person Senate State Government subcommittee.
Tooker noted that state government officials or employees invited to speak at a conference sponsored by a restricted donor are allowed to have travel, lodging and meal expenses covered. However, she noted “it could be a private jet, it could be the Ritz Carlton, it could be a really expensive dinner,” but there is no way to track that information currently. She said the issue could be exacerbated by the fact “there are more and more power couples” where both spouses may be state government employees.
The bill cover the governor’s office, the state Board of Regents’ institutions, state boards and commissions and all executive-branch agencies but not the Legislature, although subcommittee chairman Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, said he expected there would be amendments that might expand the scope of the reporting requirement. He said he was not sure if the $100 threshold is the right level but that likely would be addressed in the amending process as well.
“In Iowa there should be special privileges for none and transparency is a good thing,” said Danielson, who stressed the need to maintain a “high bar” both for real conflicts of interest and perceived ones. “You’ve identified gray areas and to the extent that we can cover gray areas, we should,” he told Tooker. “I think you’ve recognized a problem here.”
Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, was supportive of the proposal, saying “this allows us to get our arms around how extensive and what’s really happening to help us make a determination if we need more detail in the law.”
The bill requires reports be filed electronically with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board relating to gifts and bequests received by a department or accepted by the governor on behalf of the state. The reports would only be filed for months in which a gift or bequest was received or accepted. Gifts received that are not required to be disclosed include those that meet the gift law exceptions relating to contributions to a candidate and relating to food, beverage and entertainment received at a function qualifying under Iowa law.
A person who knowingly and intentionally violates the proposed reporting requirement could be convicted of a serious misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of at least $315 but not more than $1,875.