A Dark Money Group Faces an Ethics Probe After Boasting of Drafting Voter Suppression Laws

“They’re either lying [or] potentially in violation of the House ethics rules,” Iowa’s House speaker said of Heritage Action.

The conservative dark money group Heritage Action for America is facing a possible ethics investigation in Iowa after Mother Jones reported last week that it had boasted to donors of writing “model legislation” restricting voting access in battleground states across the country, including Iowa.

Democrats in the Iowa state House of Representatives filed ethics complaints against Heritage Action and its sister organization, the Heritage Foundation, on Tuesday. Iowa House Minority Leader Todd Prichard filed the complaints against Jessica Anderson, executive director of Heritage Action, and Heritage Foundation senior fellow Hans von Spakovsky for allegedly violating state lobbying rules. A day earlier, a state-affiliated watchdog agency announced it had begun its own investigation.

Anderson said in a leaked video obtained by the watchdog group Documented and shared with Mother Jones that her group had written “three provisions” of a new Iowa law that cuts early voting, restricts mail ballot drop boxes, and takes away power from local election officials.

“Iowa is the first state that we got to work in, and we did it quickly and we did it quietly,” Anderson told top Heritage Foundation donors in Tucson, Arizona, on April 22. “We worked quietly with the Iowa state legislature. We got the best practices to them. We helped draft the bills. We made sure activists were calling the state legislators, getting support, showing up at their public hearings, giving testimony…Little fanfare. Honestly, nobody even noticed. My team looked at each other and we’re like, ‘It can’t be that easy.’”

But top Iowa Republicans who drafted the bill said they never talked to Heritage about it—and noted that the group did not register as a lobbyist, as required by Iowa law, despite its claims to have worked closely with the state legislature.

“They’re either lying to impress their donors or they’re in a situation where they’re potentially in violation of the House ethics rules,” Republican House Speaker Pat Grassley (grandson of Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley), told the Des Moines Register.

“They definitely never had a single conversation with me,” added Republican Rep. Bobby Kaufmann, one of the bill’s authors. “No emails. No text messages. No phone calls. No in-person meetings. No nothing. They wrote nothing to do with that bill. They had zero input.”

The bill’s Republican floor manager in the state Senate, Roby Smith of Davenport, provided a similar denial. “The Heritage Foundation had no part in the drafting of [the bill],” he told the Register. “A number of the policy provisions…were also in previous pieces of legislation long before the Heritage Foundation even knew to take credit for something they did not do.”

The three policies Heritage claimed credit for were measures to verify the accuracy of the state’s voter list, cross-reference voting records with other states, and remove inactive voters from the list—provisions that have already put nearly 300,000 voters at risk of being purged from the rolls if they don’t take future action.

It’s not surprising that Republican legislators would not want to give an outside group credit for writing controversial legislation, but GOP legislators in Iowa have denounced Heritage in unusually strong and candid terms.

The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, a government-affiliated watchdog agency that monitors lobbying of the state’s executive branch, has also asked Heritage Action to provide any contact the group had with Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds to lobby for the bill.

“[Executive Director Mike] Marshall said if any materials show Heritage Action made contact with the governor’s office regarding the legislation, the board would at a minimum require Heritage to belatedly register as a lobbyist and file any required reports,” the Sioux City Journal reported. “The board also could pursue disciplinary action, which could result in fines up to $2,000 for each offense, Marshall said.”

Republicans in other states where Heritage Action took credit for model legislation have also sought to distance themselves from the group. Georgia Senate Majority Leader Mike Dugan said Heritage, which took credit for contributing “eight provisions” in Georgia’s voter suppression law, did not help write the bill. Unlike in Iowa, Heritage did register four lobbyists to advocate for the bill in Georgia, submitted testimony before the legislature, and hosted two members of the Georgia legislature at its donor summit, including the bill’s author in the state House, who praised the organization for “stepping up to help us.” It also registered to lobby in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as part of its $24 million campaign to write, pass, and defend restrictive voting bills.

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FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaire owners wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2021 demands.

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