Saturday, October 03, 2009

Iowa Debates What To Do With Tainted Campaign Contributions; Hoosier Pols And Media Silent On $25,000 Andre Carson Collected

While Iowa's leading newspaper continues covering one of the largest alleged embezzlement schemes in that state's history that benefitted the campaigns of many Democrats, Indiana news media sources continue their blackout of coverage on the former Indianapolis couple who gave more than $25,000 to U.S. Rep. Andre Carson to help launch his ascendancy to public office. According to a story in today's Des Moines Register, some are debating whether to change Iowa law to force political campaigns to purge themselves of tainted money it receives from people like Phyllis Stevens, a 35-year employee of Aviva who stands accused of embezzling $5.9 million from the company over a 5-year period. She and her spouse, Marla Stevens, contributed at least $175,000 to Democratic candidates during the past two election cycles. Tom Witosky, noting that Iowa law does not require candidates to give back tainted contributions, writes:

Political candidates have no legal obligation under federal and state election laws to return money contributed to them by Phyllis Stevens if the West Des Moines woman is convicted of embezzling, officials say.

But thought is now being given in Iowa to creating new laws to deal with tainted campaign gifts because of Stevens' case.

"This is a situation that I imagine people will be discussing with me over the next couple of months concerning what, if any, needs to be done to address these types of situations in the future," said Charles Smithson, director and legal counsel of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Commission.

Questions about what should be done by politicians, particularly those holding office, with contributions from the Stevenses have been asked in Iowa and elsewhere in the nation since Phyllis Stevens was arrested last week.
"[C]ontributions from the Stevenses have been asked in Iowa and elsewhere in the nation since Phyllis Stevens was arrested last week," Witosky says. That "elsewhere" does not include Indiana. Interestingly, the Indianapolis Star's editor, Dennis Ryerson, formerly worked at the Des Moines Register as its editor, which is a Gannett-owned newspaper like the Star. Gannett newspapers often collaborate with each other when a story involves events occurring in different jurisdictions. This story began in Indianapolis, where Phyllis and Marla launched their political activism. Campaign finance records suggest also that no candidate received more money from the couple than U.S. Rep. Andre Carson. As I've often noted in the past, the Indianapolis news media, particularly the Star, has a tendency not to report anything negative about Carson.

The Des Moines Register notes that the Stevens' campaign contributions immediately became an issue in Colorado where a Republican Party officials raised concerns about $14,000 the couple gave to U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey (D-CO). Markey has already announced she will give an amount equal to their contributions to charities in northern Colorado. The Iowa Democratic Party, which received $10,000 from the couple last fall, says it is unsure of the circumstances it received money from the couple, although the party's executive director assumes the contributions were solicited because of the size. Executive Director Norm Sterzenbach did not commit to giving up the contributions. Instead, he questioned where the money should go.

Unlike the Star and the balance of Indiana's news media, veteran Indiana political reporter Ed Feigenbaum immediately pounced on the story. He had this interesting observation in his weekly political newsletter, Indiana Legislative Insight:

There will undoubtedly be a push to recover the political contributions on several levels: by the insurance company, by the feds, and by those inimical to the interests of the candidates and other entities that were recipients of what
seems to be the ill-gotten largesse. From the latter, you will also see candidates attempt to be tied to the alleged fraudulent activity. This may be one of the largest cases involving fraudulently obtained cash being directed into federal campaigns outside of some recent high-profile prosecutions involving foreign nationals and related contributions.
As astute as Feigbenbaum's observations are, that discussion won't even take place in Indiana as long as the news media continues to ignore the story.

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