Iowa Politics Roundup: Miller Decides on Special Prosecutor for Campaign Probe Print
Commentary/Politics - Iowa Politics
Written by Lynn Campbell   
Friday, 07 May 2010 13:42

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller is asking the Executive Council to appoint Des Moines attorney Larry Scalise as a special prosecutor to look into allegations of improper donations to Governor Chet Culver's campaign from Fort Dodge gambling interests.

"After careful consideration I have concluded this office has no actual conflict of interest in this case," Miller said in a May 5 prepared statement. "However, I have also concluded that there is an appearance of a conflict of interest in this matter that is sufficient to lead me to seek a special prosecutor for this action."

He said his determination was "not an easy decision." But he said he believes "the need for public confidence in the criminal-justice process outweighs any other consideration."

Scalise was attorney general of Iowa from 1965 to 1967 and was the first chair of the Iowa State Racing & Gaming Commission, serving from 1983 to 1988. He has also worked as an assistant Polk County attorney, director of the Law Enforcement Division of the Iowa Liquor Control Commission, and vice chair of the Campaign Finance Disclosure Commission.

The investigation stems from a $25,000 donation to Culver's re-election campaign from three Fort Dodge casino supporters. The issue of a possible conflict of interest has been raised by Republican attorney-general candidate Brenna Findley, former Governor (and current Republican gubernatorial candidate) Terry Branstad, and the conservative Iowa Progress Project, because Assistant Attorney General Donn Stanley took a leave of absence from the attorney general's office to become Culver's new campaign manager.

After Miller's announcement, Findley called the actions too little, too late.

Culver a Focal Point as Republicans Debate

Republican gubernatorial candidates Bob Vander Plaats, state Representative Rod Roberts, and Branstad took turns hammering Culver on the state's budget, education, and taxes during a May 1 debate hosted by the Iowa Broadcast News Association.

Branstad in particular was critical of Culver, calling him "reckless and irresponsible" multiple times, especially in his handling of the state budget deficit.

"He did this reckless across-the-board cut, which really put the burden back on local governments," Branstad said. "On top of that, he insisted on putting the state deeply in debt by passing this big bonding plan that is mortgaging our future and is going to cost the taxpayers interest over the next 20 years."

Vander Plaats, a Sioux City businessman, agreed with Branstad's assessment of Culver's financial management.

"A 10-percent across-the-board cut is not leadership; in fact, it doesn't take a lot of intellectual firepower to do a cut like that," Vander Plaats said. "We didn't have to be here."

The three candidates agreed that instead of cutting the budget by a fixed rate, there should have been targeted cuts to government overhead and unnecessary bureaucracy. The candidates all pointed to education as a part of the budget that could be more efficient.

"We need to get our arms around education; otherwise we're just fooling ourselves about the budget," Vander Plaats said, arguing that cutting administrative costs would mean more money could go to teachers. "I think we need to be funding schools, not the bureaucracy."

Another area the three candidates said Culver failed was with his initiative offering state-funded preschool education, arguing that such a plan will cost the state millions of dollars that it can't afford.

"It is a classic example of state government going beyond its means," Roberts said. The Carroll Republican continued: "We would have been better off with private sources providing education for our four-year-olds."

Culver Campaign Manager Stanley said after the debate that the candidates had "pandered to their special interests" and proposed tax cuts without offering specifics on how the state would afford them.

"None of these candidates have answered the ultimate question of how they would manage to balance the budget today, and that is the definition of 'reckless and irresponsible,'" Stanley said.

He also singled out Branstad, saying he is attacking Culver for making across-the-board cuts when Branstad did the same thing as governor.

"It is sadly par for the course that Terry Branstad attacks others for the same things he has done before," Stanley said.

Gaming Commission Takes Public Comment in Advance of May 13 Decision

Hundreds of supporters and opponents of expanded gambling in the state packed into a convention room Tuesday, as the Iowa Racing & Gaming Commission received public comment before its May 13 decision on four casino-license applications.

Among the speakers at the Johnston public hearing were state lawmakers, clergy, teachers, members of the business community, and citizens. About 100 supporters of a casino in Fort Dodge wore blue T-shirts reading "Webster County is all in" to the meeting, which began at 9:30 a.m. and went into the afternoon to accommodate the dozens of speakers.

Michael Hirst, a culinary-arts teacher at Central Community College in Fort Dodge, said he sees no negative impact from a possible casino in the community but instead sees a major positive impact for the hospitality industry.

"I need this facility for my students," Hirst said. "I have to look at them in the face at the end of two years and tell them I've found some work for them or they're on their own."

The Reverend J. Faulkner Martin of the First Presbyterian Church in Fort Dodge told the five-member commission that he can't stand silent on the crucial issue, saying he disagrees with Culver that Fort Dodge needs a casino.

"Certainly in a lagging economy a few hundred jobs sounds alluring, but my friends the long-term cost leaves people more desperate than before," Martin said.

State Representative Marcie Frevert (D-Emmetsburg) also spoke against the proposed Fort Dodge casino, saying it would pull business from the Wild Rose Casino in nearby Emmetsburg. "Please do not vote to diminish and cannibalize one community for the sake of another," Frevert said.

No one registered to speak for or against a proposed casino in Lyon County, and only a few comments were made regarding a proposed Tama County casino. The fourth proposed casino in Ottumwa drew plenty of comments, though, with many of them relating to the relationship the casino could foster with the nearby Honey Creek State Resort and the Bridge View Center in Ottumwa.

Andy Woodrick, the general manager of Honey Creek, said the casino would bring "synergy" to the area and would mean that guests would stay longer to visit the nearby casino. State Representative Mary Gaskill (D-Ottumwa) said the state has already invested money in Honey Creek and the Bridge View Center, and added that she believes the casino would boost income to those facilities.

"If any of the casinos in the area of southeast Iowa do lose some business, I believe their losses will not be as much as the gain for the state and for Wapello County," Gaskill said.

Meanwhile, a longtime Democratic activist and a former Republican lawmaker joined forces against all four casino licenses, saying the state has already gone far enough with gambling.

Mitch Henry, a Des Moines Democrat, and Danny Carroll, board chair of the Iowa Family Policy Center, presented data showing casinos are associated with increased bankruptcy, divorce rates, abuse, neglect, and crime. Carroll said he is speaking on behalf of a group not represented before the commission: children.

"If the commission grants one more license, their life will probably be ruined because Mom or Dad ... will be losing the paycheck before it gets home," Carroll said.

Henry said Iowa already has 17 state-licensed casinos and two Native American casinos, as well as 21,000 slot machines.

"We feel we're at the point that it is more than enough," Henry said.

Ag Committee Chair: No Additional Money in 2012 Farm Bill

Farmers shouldn't count on any additional money for the 2012 farm bill, U.S. House Agriculture Chair Collin Peterson (D-Minnesota) said about an hour into a three-hour field hearing at the Iowa State Fairgrounds' cattle barn.

"We are not going to have any extra money for this farm bill. We will be lucky to hold on to what we've got," Peterson said. "It ain't going to happen. The money it costs to raise the loan rates, it's not realistic."

The comment came after Richard Bayliss, a corn and soybean producer from Ottumwa who was one of nine Iowans to testify, argued that loan prices on corn need to be raised. He said the current rate is half the market value.

U.S. Representative Tom Latham (R-Iowa) is not a member of the committee but was allowed to speak at the hearing. He also addressed the problem of funding the next farm bill: "The 900-pound gorilla certainly is the budget deficit and what funds will be available for us to write the next farm bill," he said.

Latham pointed out that Iowa is the number-one producer of corn, soybeans, pork, and eggs and is a leader in beef and renewable energy with ethanol. He said implementation hasn't occurred yet on the last farm bill, which is frustrating to many. He also expressed frustration that "the EPA wants to take over a lot of our control in agriculture."

Iowa farmers testifying asked for a safety net to offset costs of production.

"What we want is a reliable safety net when the market drops out from underneath our feet," said Dane Lang, a sixth-generation dairy, corn and soybean producer from Brooklyn who talked about how the industry has seen the largest collapse in history in the price of milk.

"If you milk cows, you are losing money," Lang said. "Dairy farms are still losing money, and Iowa is losing dairies. The next farm bill won't help any dairymen today. Frankly, we're not worried about 2012. We're worried about next month.".

Lawyer: State Challenges to Health Reform Unlikely to Succeed

A lawyer specializing in health law and employee benefits says she doesn't believe state attorneys general have a good chance of overturning the recently approved federal health-care-reform law.

A number of state attorneys general have signed on to challenge the law, but Susan Freed of the Davis Brown Law Firm in Des Moines said she doesn't see a benefit in challenging the law. Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has said he will not sign on to the lawsuit.

"I think to me it's a political move because it is unpopular among some Americans, and it does seem to be more a political tactic than a benefit to a state," Freed said after taking part in a Greater Des Moines Partnership panel on federal health-care reform and its impact on businesses.

Freed said while it's hard to guess what a court will do and this issue doesn't have a strong, established precedent, she believes it would be easy for a court to apply the interstate-commerce provision in the U.S. Constitution to such a case. That clause gives the federal government the authority to regulate commerce between states.

"My belief is that if employers or people are sitting around thinking that this is going to get overturned, they are going to be disappointed, because I don't think it's got a very strong chance," Freed said. "But it will be intriguing to watch it."

Angela Burke Boston of the Iowa Insurance Division and Topher Spiro of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor, & Pension (HELP) Committee said they expect Iowa to be out in front in implementing the provisions of the health-care-reform law.

"Some states will be pacesetters, some will lag behind, and some will fall in the middle," Boston said. "We hope to be pacesetters here in Iowa."

Boston noted the approval of a bill this legislative session to set up an insurance information exchange in Iowa, and said she expects that program to be up and running by January 1, years before a federal health exchange is due to be established.

Spiro said U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate HELP Committee, is committed to making Iowa a pacesetter, and also said participation from Iowans will be crucial in making the reforms successful.

"Senator Harkin has said many times that this is not set in stone, that of course changes are going to have to be made along the way because it is a big undertaking and things are going to have to evolve as we see how they work in practice," Spiro said.

The overall impact of health-care reform will be positive for small businesses, Spiro said, noting a number of benefits small businesses can receive through the law.

"A lot of the goal of reform, the concept we're trying to put in place, is [to] allow small businesses to offer coverage that is comparable to those of large firms," Spiro said.

This weekly summary comes from, an online government and politics news service. Reporter Andrew Duffelmeyer and other correspondents contributed to this report.

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