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Lawmakers’ families bring home big perks

5/9/2013

DES MOINES – Family members and close friends of Iowa‘s Congressional Delegation benefit from their position, whether it be special one-time funding for an alma mater or hundreds of thousands of dollars paid to one lawmaker’s son for working on his campaign, a review federal records shows.

Take for example U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley and his son Robin Grassley. The younger Grassley received $926,000 in farm subsidies from 1995 to 2011, years in which his Republican father served on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, secured $45.5 million in earmarks from 2008 to 2010 that largely funded programs and projects at his alma mater Iowa State University, according to Legistorm, a non-profit group aimed to increase transparency in government. The money was awarded to the school while his wife, Ruth Harkin, served on the Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees the university.

CASH CROP: Farm subsidies equal big money for relatives of Iowa’s members of Congress.

CASH CROP: Farm subsidies equal big money for relatives of Iowa’s members of Congress.

Then there’s U.S. Rep. Steve King, a Republican who paid his son Jeff King and daughter-in-law Lindsay King nearly $185,000 to help run his 2008 and 2010 campaigns, according to the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan nonprofit. His other son, David King, took over the family construction company, King Construction, which has secured at least $1 million in federal contracts, according to the Center for Effective Government.

Martini Fest

“It was probably more than that,” Steve King said in an interview with Iowa Watchdog. “His business associates and friends know more than I know.”

“All of the contracts we have done have been done on the low bid. We have left the taxpayers with millions of dollars, because the low bid leaves money on the table,” he added.

An investigation by Iowa Watchdog of the state’s six Congressional delegates uncovered multiple instances in which family members of the elected officials collected hundreds of thousands of campaign or taxpayer dollars. The money was used to pay for campaign services, provide farm subsidies and give special interest groups millions of dollars to pay for pet projects.

Records showed family members of Congress have collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in farm subsidies. Example: Rep. Tom Latham, a Republican, received $314,000 in subsidies over a 16-year span, during which he served on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture. His sons, brothers and other relatives also received tens of thousands in farm subsidies, according to the Environmental Working Group, which tracks farm subsidies.

And it’s all legal under federal ethics laws. The lack of reporting requirements or limitations leaves it an area ripe for abuse, some experts said.

Specifically, the Iowa Watchdog investigation found:

  • DCI Group, which employed Grassley’s daughters Wendy Speckerman and Michele Clarke, has donated nearly $78,000 to either Grassley or his political action committee, the Hawkeye PAC, according to OpenSecrets.org. DCI Group is also listed as a client of The Grassley Group, a company established to help others achieve their mission and visions, the website said. Clarke is listed as its executive director and Speckerman was listed under finance, advocacy and office operations. The group also employs lobbyists at the national level, according to the website.
  • Latham directed $39.3 million in earmarks from 2008 to 2010 to Iowa State University, his alma mater, according to LegiStorm. His daughter, Jill Latham, also earned $90,570 from working in the U.S. House between 2001 to 2004. She worked briefly for former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, before going to work at the Concordia Group LLC, owned by Nick Ryan, whose political action committee the America Future Fund gave Latham’s campaign $3,500 from 2011-12, according to OpenSecrets.org.
  • Harkin owns shares in ConocoPhillip, where his wife Ruth Harkin served as director, a position she has since left. At least one of the company’s lobbyists has ties to Senate. Robert Jones was the former counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, which Harkin sits on, documents from OpenSecrets.org show.
  • Rep. Bruce Braley’s campaign committee, Braley for Congress, reimbursed Braley $12,205 during the 2008 and 2010 election cycles. He also paid Around the Corner Productions, owned by his nephew Eric Braley $163 for campaign work, according to report by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“Transparency leads to accountability and journalism and other elements of public life play important roles in providing sunshine,” Jill Kozeny, Grassley’s communications director, wrote in an email. “Senator Grassley would not seek to put public disclosure requirements on private citizens, including the children or other family members of Congress, who neither seek public office nor hold a public trust where accountability is essential.

That’s something Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, disputes.

It’s hard to track abuse and how widespread it is due to the lack of reporting requirements, Allison said. The one thing that’s for sure is Iowa isn’t alone in the benefits its members of Congress provide their family.

“There are no disclosure requirements,” Allison said. “Having family members represent special interests give them a huge advantage when it comes to access to lawmakers. The name of the game is access.

It has come up at times. It’s not something members of Congress have been eager to do. But, because of the lack of disclosure, it’s just ripe for abuse.”

 Contact Sheena Dooley at dooley@iowawatchdog.org. Sheena Dooley is the Iowa bureau chief for Watchdog.org, where this story first appeared.

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