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Group backing Iowa’s Ernst hit with complaint after AP story

By BRIAN SLODYSKO, The Associated Press

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Sen. Joni Ernst speaks to the media with members of Senate Republican leadership after their weekly policy luncheon on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 30, 2019. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — An election watchdog filed a complaint Thursday alleging than an outside group founded by top political aides to Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst violated campaign finance law in its effort improve the Republican’s chance of reelection next year.

The complaint, filed with the Federal Election Commission by the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, comes after The Associated Press reported earlier this month that Ernst’s work with the political nonprofit Iowa Values to raise money and build an electoral “firewall” potentially violated campaign finance and tax law.

Political nonprofits are often referred to as “dark money” groups because they can raise unlimited sums and do not have to disclose their donors. But such tax-exempt groups are forbidden from making political activity their primary purpose.

The complaint requests that the FEC launch an investigation. It also argues that internal Iowa Values documents revealed by the AP show the group’s major purpose is political activity. That likely violates the conditions of its tax-exempt status while breaking campaign finance laws that obligate the group to register as a political committee with the FEC and disclose its anonymous donors, the watchdog said.

“There is little evidence of Iowa Values engaging in any activities in 2019 other than those aimed at influencing Ernst’s reelection,” the Campaign Legal Center wrote in the complaint.

An attorney representing both Iowa Values and the Ernst campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Her campaign previously said that it operates independently of Iowa Values and takes campaign finance law seriously.

“The truth is, our campaign is completely separate and independent from any outside organization,” spokeswoman Brook Ramlet said earlier this month. “Our campaign always has and always will act in full compliance with and in the spirit of the law.”

The complaint is the third to be filed against Iowa Values following the AP’s story. A group called the Campaign for Accountability, which has ties to the Democratic Party, filed a complaint last week along similar lines. Another called American Democracy Legal Fund, which is run by a longtime Democratic operative, previously requested an investigation, as well.

After a recent resignation, however, the FEC currently lacks enough commissioners to legally meet to conduct business, approve investigations or take enforcement action. It’s unclear when the Senate may take action to appoint more board members.

Political nonprofits must take steps to operate independently from the candidates they support. Iowa Values was co-founded in 2017 by Ernst’s longtime consultant, Jon Kohan. It shares a fundraiser, Claire Holloway Avella, with the Ernst campaign. And a condo owned by a former aide — who was recently hired to lead the group — was used as Iowa Values’ address at a time when he worked for her.

The documents reviewed by the AP, including emails and a strategy memo, not only make clear that the group’s aim is securing an Ernst win in 2020, but they also show Ernst and her campaign worked in close concert.

Legal experts have said the fundraising practices of Holloway Avella are a potential campaign finance violation.

Candidates and their “agents” can’t solicit, direct or spend contributions that exceed federal limits, even if the donations are made to an outside group. Those limits currently prevent donors from giving more than $2,800 to a candidate and $5,000 to a political action committee per election.

In July, Holloway Avella requested “an investment of $50,000” from a donor after Ernst made an introduction. And she made clear in the email how much a contribution of that size could help.

“As a follow up to our introduction by Senator Ernst, I am reaching out to you on behalf of Iowa Values,” she wrote.

“As you may have seen, an outside group on the left ... recently launched a six-figure ad buy in media markets across the state attacking Senator Ernst on her vote to repeal Obamacare,” she continued. “The purpose of our group, Iowa Values, is to push back against these type of negative attacks.”

Holloway Avella closed the email with a “reminder” that donations are not “publicly disclosed.”