Monday, November 17, 2008

"Hats Off" to Register for Money in Politics Expose

November 17, 2008, 2:40 p.m.

Register Wins "Hats Off" Award for Expose:

Tawdry Impact of Campaign Contributions on Iowa's Nursing Home Public Policy

We're all familiar with the role of big money in Washington. See, e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "Campaigns: You Pay $4 or $4000," Des Moines Register, July 21, 1996, p. C2 (documenting the details of how major campaign contributors get benefits from the federal government roughly 1000 to 2000 times the value of what they contribute).

We like to believe that the elected officials representing the honorable folks living here in bucolic Iowa are a cut above all that.

Well, sadly, they're not.

But making the case isn't easy. Last April I wrote, "Unfortunately, . . . investigative reporting of money in Iowa politics and governing is all too rare. Occasionally there will be stories regarding which legislators have raised how much money. There may even be a reference to where some of that money came from. Very rarely is there an effort to investigate the extent to which there is a relationship between the sources of campaign funds and the votes of the recipients -- let alone a routine reporting of these relationships for every single member of the Iowa legislature." Nicholas Johnson, "Golden Rules & Revolutions: A Series, Part VIII: Money and Lobbyists in Iowa: Smoke and Mirrors," April 19, 2008.

Occasionally ("rarely" would be more accurate) this blog gives a "hats off" award for journalistic excellence. And the Register earned it yesterday for two pieces by Clark Kauffman: Clark Kauffman, "Nursing home groups donate to lawmakers," Des Moines Register, November 16, 2008, and Clark Kauffman, Industry Courts Legislators," Des Moines Register, November 16, 2008. (As it happens, Kauffman was also the author of the earlier article, on this same subject, that prompted my earlier blog entry last April: Clark Kauffman, "Culver won't part with nursing home industry's donations," Des Moines Register, April 7, 2008.)

Here, then, are excerpts from Kauffman's November 16 stories, followed by additional excerpts from my earlier April 19, 2008, blog entry.

At 4 o'clock on a Wednesday afternoon last year, a group of Iowa nursing home officials gathered at the South Dakota home of Tim Boyle, the owner of Grinnell's Friendship Manor and several other Iowa care facilities.

It was one of 12 legislative fundraisers . . .

The 12th, at Boyle's residence, was for Rep. Christopher Rants, then the minority leader of the Iowa House [who] collected 15 checks totaling $3,090.

The contributors included Boyle; two of his relatives; the political action committee of the Iowa Healthcare Association; Steve Ackerson, the association's executive director; and Richard Allbee, the chief executive officer of a company that operates four dozen care facilities in Iowa.

Boyle is now the president of the board of the Iowa Healthcare Association, which is telling lawmakers that the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals is overly aggressive in policing the state's nursing home industry. His Friendship Manor is facing a $112,650 federal fine for alleged neglect that resulted in 89-year-old Ruth Louden losing part of one leg. . . .

Here's a look at some of the biggest recipients of money from the Iowa Health Care Association Political Action Committee during 2008:

Iowa Democratic Party: $12,500

Iowa Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs: $12,500

Gov. Chet Culver: $10,000

Republican Party of Iowa: $7,500

Senate Minority Leader Ron Wieck, R-Sioux City: $5,000

House Speaker Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque: $4,500

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Des Moines: $2,500

Former House Minority Leader Christopher Rants, R-Sioux City: $2,000

Rep. Jo Oldson, D-Des Moines: $2,000

Senate President Jack Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg: $2,000
Clark Kauffman, "Nursing home groups donate to lawmakers," Des Moines Register, November 16, 2008.

State Rep. Dave Heaton thinks Iowa's nursing home industry is getting a raw deal from the Department of Inspections and Appeals. . . .

[T]he Mount Pleasant Republican has suggested moving the regulation of Iowa's nursing homes from the state inspections department to the Iowa Department of Elder Affairs. . . .

Elder Affairs . . . did oversee assisted-living centers until 2002 when it was reported that the agency had never issued any penalties against any Iowa care facilities and was keeping two sets of inspection reports - a confidential set that detailed problems within the facilities, and a public version that omitted any mention of those issues. . . .

Senate President John "Jack" Kibbie, D-Emmetsburg, says he'd like to see the inspections department take what he calls a "softer approach" to regulating nursing homes. . . .

In 2007, Kibbie and Heaton each traveled separately to Washington, D.C., with their travel expenses paid for by the Iowa Healthcare Association, the organization that lobbies state legislators on behalf of Iowa's nursing homes.

Heaton said he sees nothing wrong with private industry paying for such trips. . . .

Steve Ackerson, executive director of the Iowa association, said the . . . association paid for the lawmakers' airfare and lodging expenses . . ..

Heaton said he doesn't recall spending the night or attending the convention.

Association records indicate Kibbie traveled to Washington with Ackerson two months later. In a newsletter sent to Iowa nursing home officials after that trip, Ackerson said . . . Kibbie "really went to bat" for the industry.

Kibbie said he and his wife went back to Washington this year at the association's expense. While there, he was given an award from the American Healthcare Association.

"They just offered to take us out there and bring us back," Kibbie said. . . .

"Where am I going to get the money?" he said.
Clark Kauffman, Industry Courts Legislators," Des Moines Register, November 16, 2008.

So a big "Hats Off" to the Register and Clark Kauffman for performing this central obligation of the mass media, and central purpose of the First Amendment: a "checking value" on all major institutions in general, and on the role of money in politics in particular. Those "Washington politicians" are not the only ones Iowans need to keep an eye on -- a task made possible only with this kind of assist from the media.

See also, Jay Christensen-Szalanski, "Following the Campaign Money," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 16, 2008 ("For years, non-partisan groups like the League of Women Voters have documented the corrupting effect of lobbyist money and out-of-state campaign contributions like those cited above. When our legislators respond with the standard, 'These gifts don't affect my voting,' ask yourself why smart lobbyists still give them money and then think back to the common-sense examples at the beginning of this article." Some of the cited examples for Iowa City's legislative representatives included "lobbyists for hospitals, nursing homes, drug companies, insurance companies and health provider interest groups" giving to two legislators who publicly "advocate affordable health care." Riverside Casino and a payday loan company contributed to another. A New York investment firm CEO gave $10,000, plus $3000, plus $3000 to two others.)
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From the April 19, 2008, blog entry:

Former Governor Tom Vilsack took "campaign contributions" from the nursing home industry. Iowa's present Governor, Chet Culver, received $15,500 from the nursing home industry during the last two years -- at a time when lax state inspections of nursing homes have been criticized. I don't mean to suggest a connection, and neither did the Des Moines Register story, but the governors' responses to these observations remind me of the Queen's line from William Shakespeare's Hamlet: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

A former Iowa legislator, Democrat John Tapscott, a critic of the industry, asked both Culver and his predecessor, Tom Vilsack (both Democrats) to return the payments.

Vilsack wrote to Tapscott and said: "[I]f you believe that the taking of this contribution in some way affects my ability to do that job, I can assure you it does not." . . .

Culver spokesman Brad Anderson said, . . . "The idea that contributions have affected in any way the regulation of the nursing home industry by the Department of Inspections and Appeals under this administration is patently false . . .."
Clark Kauffman, "Culver won't part with nursing home industry's donations," Des Moines Register, April 7, 2008.

Unfortunately, this kind of investigative reporting of money in Iowa politics and governing is all too rare. Occasionally there will be stories regarding which legislators have raised how much money. There may even be a reference to where some of that money came from. Very rarely is there an effort to investigate the extent to which there is a relationship between the sources of campaign funds and the votes of the recipients -- let alone a routine reporting of these relationships for every single member of the Iowa legislature.

Nor has there been much reporting about the use of money as legislative power inside the legislature. To what extent is "leadership" purchased? What of those legislators who raise "campaign funds" far in excess of reasonable need in order to pass them along to the leadership, their relevant state parties -- or to their less prosperous colleagues. Is there any correlation between their "generosity" and the fact they end up chairing committees?

Understand, I'm only raising questions, not providing answers. Indeed, my point, my complaint, is that we don't have the answers, answers I think are necessary in a democracy, answers we can rightfully expect the media to provide for us. Iowa's springtime legislators may well be as pure as Iowa's wintertime snow. But it is possible -- just barely possible -- that they may share some of the practices that have been a part of American politics during the past century in the other 49 states and Washington.

For example, where are the current news stories tying campaign contributions and lobbying expenses to the otherwise rather bizarre votes of Iowa legislators banning smoking throughout the entire state of Iowa -- except for gambling casinos?

As Rekha Basu reports, "The result came out of political deal making, not logic. The exemption was put in after hard lobbying by the casino industry." Rekha Basu, "Logic takes detour with smoking-ban exemptions," Des Moines Register, April 11, 2008.

When I say "where are the stories" I don't mean to suggest there are no such stories -- with the details of dates (over time as well as last 12 months), amounts ("in-kind," trips and entertainment as well as cash), names of donors (gambling and tobacco industry individuals as well as PACs) and recipients (political parties as well as legislators and their leadership), Nevada and other out of state money, and so forth. I just mean the question literally: if you've seen them please put a comment on this blog entry as to where they are so I can make reference to them.

Can those legislators who insisted on the casino exemption give us equal, governor-quality assertive assurances that their votes were not in any way influenced by campaign contributions, lobbyist pressure and favors, or other benefits?
Nicholas Johnson, "Golden Rules & Revolutions: A Series, Part VIII: Money and Lobbyists in Iowa: Smoke and Mirrors," April 19, 2008.

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3 comments:

John said...

Nick,
I am a producer for Purple States. We filmed the short video documentary series about a team of citizen journalists traveling through the primary and battleground states and covering the election. This was shown on NYTimes.com and the Wash Post online. We have launched our next project - 50/50/50 - where we talk with 50 bloggers from 50 states about the economy in their area. (You can see the series at www.purplestates.tv.) CNN.com and iReport.com are our platform partners, and highlight the videos on those sites. It is my job to read through state blogs and invite the best to take part. We would (really, really) love to have FromDC2Iowa represent Iowa.
Let me know if you are interested - you can contact me at 505050John@gmail.com
Thanks.
John Kennedy
Co-Producer
Purple States

Erich said...

Thank you for this.

More today from Craig Kauffman on the nursing industry in Iowa.

http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20100627/NEWS10/6270343/Nursing-home-inspectors-feel-lawmaker-pressure

Nick said...

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