Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Civic Skinny

Reynolds’ ‘surprise’ at Miller ruling was phony. Gross kin for U.S. attorney? No payout for Donley.


Attorney General Tom Miller‘s staff indicated to Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds or her staff weeks in advance that he was going to rule she would not have the constitutional authority to appoint her successor after she took over the Governor’s duties from Terry Branstad.

So her “surprise” at the May 1 ruling was feigned, her outrage was phony, and her behavior was all theater. Also, her facts were wrong.

Blogger Laurie Belin made that abundantly clear the other day after slogging through 3,061 pages of emails and records she received under the Iowa open records act. Finding a nugget here, a nugget there among the piles of papers, she put together a damning chronology proving that the Republican attack on Democrat Miller’s decision as a politically motivated late hit was political bullshit — bullshit repeated without question by the state’s media.

Belin’s report was one of the best pieces of Iowa political journalism in years, a story that but for her doggedness would never have seen the light. Plowing through the piles of emails, of redundant memos and of totally irrelevant stuff was “a nightmare,” she told CITYVIEW, and nothing was in chronological order.

Belin is probably the hardest-working — and perhaps the best — political reporter in the state. In the manner of the legendary I.F. Stone, she digs through files and forms and reports that are mostly ignored, analyzes data and keeps asking questions. Her blog — Bleeding Heartland — has become must reading for politicos and their followers and should be read by people who simply want to know what’s going on. (On Wednesdays, she takes a break and writes about wildflowers.)

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The Miller decision was in response to a question from David Johnson, the one-time Republican and now Independent state senator from Ocheydan. In a carefully researched, well-written, seven-page letter sent to Miller on Feb. 1, the long-time legislator cited several parts of the Iowa Constitution that say that in the event of a gubernatorial vacancy the powers of the office “devolve” to the lieutenant governor.

The central question was: Does Reynolds have the power to name a new lieutenant governor? He asked for an official opinion, which he was entitled to as a legislator.

It was complicated because the Attorney General had earlier given an informal opinion that Reynolds had the power to name a new lieutenant governor. Miller — apparently prodded by Solicitor General Jeff Thompson and some other staffers — ultimately changed his mind, which took a certain amount of political courage even though the Constitution was clear. The 23-page letter to Johnson, issued May 1, was clear on the point of not naming a lieutenant governor; it was murky on the point of whether Reynolds actually becomes “governor,” but that’s irrelevant — she has the duties, and, anyway, the formal address for lieutenant governors, as well as governors, is “Governor.”

[At one point in the letter, Miller wrote: “Upon the governor’s resignation, the powers and duties of the office will devolve or fall upon the lieutenant governor — who does not ascend or rise to the office of Governor.” In the same paragraph, he says the lieutenant governor “becomes governor for all intents and purposes,” and then adds, “In other words, upon a governor’s resignation, the lieutenant governor will hold both the offices of Governor and Lieutenant Governor.”]

While the Attorney General’s office clearly was keeping the Governor’s office apprised of the direction of his thinking, Miller never provided an equal courtesy to Johnson, according to Johnson. And Belin noted something else: Drafts of the opinion letter to Johnson (which Miller’s office surprisingly included in response to freedom-of-information requests from Belin and the Republican Party of Iowa), ended: “We thank you, Senator, for your dedicated service to the State of Iowa and your keen interest in seeking clarity on these important legal issues.”

Somehow, that sentence wasn’t in the final opinion.

“I wonder whether the governor’s staffers…or perhaps Branstad and Reynolds themselves…saw those words and took offense,” Belin writes.

Johnson, who has no plans to join either party and who as an independent had no political stake in the answer to his question, has shown what “independent” means ever since quitting the party in June because he was sickened by its nomination of Donald Trump. Though still a fervent anti-abortion voter and an opponent of funding for Planned Parenthood, he regularly voted with Democrats last session on key bills on the environment, health care, taxes and some social issues.

He hasn’t said whether he will run for his fifth term in the Senate in 2018, but he is appearing in political parades in the district this summer, usually a sign that a legislator is running again. He’s popular with his constituents in the five counties he represents in conservative northwest Iowa. He has been elected to the Iowa Senate four times after serving two terms in the Iowa House, and the last two times he was elected without an opponent. He would stand a strong chance to win as an Independent in a two-person race against probable Republican candidate Zach Whiting, a staffer for Congressman Steve King. Johnson is the only Independent in the Legislature. 

Reynolds, meanwhile, stuck her thumb in the eye of Miller after his decision was announced. In an interview with Channel 13’s Dave Price, she misstated the facts and called it “unfortunate” that Miller “dropped the opinion” the day before Branstad’s hearings to be confirmed as ambassador to China. It “looks like politics,” she said.

In fact, Miller was prepared to issue the opinion a few days earlier but held off at the request of the Governor’s office, according to a Des Moines Register story at the time by Jason Noble. If it was politics, it was Republican politics.

“Why did Reynolds repeatedly give reporters the false impression that she had been counting on what Miller said in December, when Thompson went out of his way to give advance notice?” Belin wrote. She added: “Staff for Reynolds have not answered these and other questions.”

Reynolds, meanwhile, named Adam Gregg “acting lieutenant governor,” apparently giving herself the power to do so. There is nothing in the law or the Iowa Constitution that gives her that power — she could have named him “assistant to the Governor with the duties of a lieutenant governor,” lawyers say, but she went a step further.

Reynolds now refers to Gregg as “Lieutenant Governor,” which he isn’t, and she has announced that the two will run together in the gubernatorial election next year (assuming she beats Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett in the primary). She made the announcement after a victory parade, of sorts, in which she flew around the state on the private jet of Republican businessman Gary Kirke, whose casino licenses rely on the votes of the state’s Racing and Gaming Commission — whose members are appointed by the Governor.

Two other things: Reynolds told Channel 13’s Price that Miller didn’t “need to weigh in on this,” that he “had no obligation to answer” Johnson’s letter. In fact, legislators (and state officers and county attorneys) have a right to ask for formal opinions from the Attorney General, and while the Attorney General isn’t bound to respond, the Attorney General’s website says questions about “confusion in the law itself” are among the “most appropriate questions for opinions,” clearly implying a responsibility to respond.

The other thing she said without a hint of embarrassment: “People are sick of politics.” …

Marc Krickbaum apparently will be the new U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa, and Pete Deegan is expected to get the job for the Northern District.

Both were on the short lists of finalists sent to the White House by Sens. Charles Grassley and Joni Ernst, and both are being checked out by the FBI in preparation for the nomination.

Krickbaum is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Des Moines, and Deegan is chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Cedar Rapids. Krickbaum currently practices law in Illinois — Grassley’s announcement of the finalists listed him as “previously of Des Moines.”

More to the point, perhaps: Krickbaum is the son-in-law of Republican operative Doug Gross. If he is confirmed as U.S. Attorney, he will replace Acting U.S. Attorney Kevin VanderSchel, who is the son-in-law of longtime Democratic Congressman Neil Smith. Though Krickbaum lived on Waterbury Road in Des Moines for a couple of years, he apparently never registered to vote in Polk County. …

Jim Mowrer, who lost Congressional bids in the last two elections, apparently plans to run for Secretary of State next year, Iowa Democrats say…

Two talented young reporters at The Des Moines Register are leaving to go to law school at Drake. Grant Rodgers, who covers the courts, and Joel Aschbrenner, who covers business and downtown developments, both have resigned. …

Bob Donley, who resigned as executive director of the Board of Regents the other day, is getting no severance pay, though it’s pretty clear he was urged to leave when the make-up of the board changed this spring.

Donley made $338,000 with bonuses in fiscal 2015 and $287,000 in fiscal 2016. Former Regents, the Legislature and the Governor’s office simply ignored the statutory cap of $154,500 on his pay by giving him bonuses and deferred pay. He received $140,000 on July 1 from his 2015 deferred-compensation plan, according to a Regents spokesman.

On June 1 — one month after board leadership changed — Donley sent a one-sentence letter of resignation saying “I have decided to tender my resignation effective July 15, 2017.” On the same day, new Board President Mike Richards accepted the resignation, stripped him of all management responsibilities immediately, said his sole responsibility until July 15 “will be to assist with the transition at my direction,” and said he would report to Marc Braun, the board’s chief operating officer who had been increasingly in charge.

It’s likely Braun will end up with responsibility for running the office, though again salary might be a problem. He made $286,000 in fiscal 2016, more than the statutory limit for the director’s job, and this board seems to be one that pays more attention to the laws than its predecessor did. …

The United States Court of Appeals last month affirmed Judge Jim Gritzner‘s ruling granting summary judgment to two Iowa State University students who had sued four university officials after they barred a student organization from using an Iowa State trademark on a T-shirt urging the legalization of marijuana.

The university had approved the design until bureaucrats on Capitol Hill complained. Then-president Steve Leath quickly determined that Iowa politics trumped freedom of expression. If the students continue to win, the case ultimately will go to trial to determine damages. The four defendants, who include Leath and retired ISU vice president Warren Madden, could end up being personally liable for any damages, but they then could make a claim for indemnification from the state. …

Art Cullen, the Storm Lake editor who won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing this spring, has signed a contract to write a book.

“One thing I’ve learned in my eight weeks of fame is of the tremendous yearning to get the pulse along these county blacktops,” he wrote the other day. “People want to know why Iowa is Iowa, believe it or not. Folks in Seattle are keenly interested in the fact that a score of languages are spoken in our schools. People in Los Angeles are interested in a new Latino outpost. People in Atlanta wonder why young people flee Iowa by the drove. People in New York are trying to understand why Iowa voted for Donald Trump. Or Steve King. I think it comes from the feeling of the air slowly being let out of the American Dream along the byways.”

The publisher, Viking, has come up with a catchy title: “Storm Lake.”

Every time Cullen speaks or writes about winning, he gives great credit to Randy Evans and the organization he heads, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. Evans wrote the letters that pried loose some of the documents Cullen needed to buttress his editorials about the lawsuit the Des Moines Water Works filed against three counties in northwest Iowa.

The council relies on a shoestring budget and Evans’ fervor, and both have been reinforced by Cullen’s plugs — as well as by the $5,000 Cullen himself is giving after winning the $15,000 prize. (Another $5,000 of the prize money is going to Catholic Charities to help resettle refugees in Storm Lake.) About $35,000 has come in in recent weeks, in contributions ranging from $3 to $5,000. Most have come from out-of-state. The council’s annual budget is about $22,000. …

Buck Turnbull, who died the other day at age 88, was a good guy and a good sportswriter. ♦



From a libel suit filed against the Quad-City Times by fired Davenport administrator Craig Malin:

“Here’s the thing. The first lie I tell in my job is the end of my career. It is that simple. So I avoid telling lies like kids avoid broccoli. I’ll feed it to the dog. I’ll wipe my mouth and deftly spit it out into my napkin. I’ll stuff it in my pants pocket when mom’s not looking. No broccoli. No lies.” ♦


Your taxes at work

Item No. 1: Compressor Controls Corp. is an Urbandale company that is spending $434,000 to remodel its headquarters. The other day the state, which is struggling financially, gave it a $32,500 grant to help out. No new jobs are being created.

Item No. 2: The city council of Des Moines, which is struggling financially, voted Monday (June 26) to give the Greater Des Moines Partnership $100,000 this year, next year and the year after that. The vote was 5 to 1. Mayor Frank Cownie was absent. Councilman Skip Moore voted no. ♦





  1. Julie Gammack says:

    Thanks for letting your readers know about Laurie Belin’s blog. Here’s a link; http://Www.bleedingheartland.com
    She doesn’t charge for her work; not even a ‘tip jar’ is available for those of us willing to contribute.
    Pat Rynard’s Iowa Starting Line is a good one, too: http://www.iowastartingline.com

    1. Sharon Johnson says:

      Thanks, Julie, for the website addresses! Sounds like a couple of people we “outsiders” need!

  2. Paul Stigers says:

    Buck Turnbull was GREAT guy and a GREAT sportswriter. The word “Good” is a terrible understatement.

  3. desmoinesdem says:

    Thank you for taking an interest in this story. Here’s a link to the article demonstrating that the smear campaign against Tom Miller was phony. I posted the document containing all the released records there.

  4. Fly_Fly_Fly_Away says:

    I appear to be a week late. In any event….
    Exactly one year and one day ago I emailed a friend and suggested he read Laura desmoinesdem Belin. I told him she is prolific and smart and almost like a local Maddow. She does extraordinary work. Read her.

  5. Aware Iowan says:

    The real question is why Miller’s office ignores so many substantive issues, such as Medicaid, water quality, and elder abuse, does he choose to confront Republicans on this issue?

    Another question is why people who consider themselves environmentalists, such as Belin, support requiring a state sales tax to further subsidize the worst polluters in the state, who happen to be incredibly wealthy. And many live out of state. Instead of requiring farmland owners to prevent erosion of topsoil on their own.

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