Ethics board may approach state legislature over nomination petition concerns

BY LUKE VOELZ | APRIL 30, 2012 6:30 AM

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A complaint against Johnson County Auditor Tom Slockett has incited debate over public nomination petitions in Iowa.

Slockett, who is running against Democrat Travis Weipert for county auditor in a June 5 primary, was accused in a complaint filed April 25 of allegedly distributing nomination petitions in the Johnson County Auditor's Office, discussing campaign strategy on his county email, and lecturing an employee who did not sign the petition. The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board voted unanimously April 27 to launch an expedited investigation into the charges.

Slockett could not be reached Sunday for comment.

Board Executive Director Megan Tooker said the Board sometimes rules such petitions don't violate Iowa law because they don't support a particular candidate over others. However, the board decided to pursue the charges under a separate law forbidding the use of government resources for personal gain unless similarly situated people — such as Weipert — are given the same opportunity.

The lack of clarity on petitions in state code, Tooker said, has led the board to consider asking legislators to ban nomination petitions in public offices altogether.

"Our board had a long discussion about how they really didn't like nomination petitions in [public] offices under any circumstances," she said. "Our board's job is to interpret the law, not to set policy — but they're going to encourage the Legislature to take a look at it and maybe make modifications to prohibit nomination petitions from being circulated."

Though the board will likely not approach policymakers until the next legislative session, lawmakers said they supported any efforts to clarify public ethics policy.

"We respect the concept of making sure all elections are held truthfully and faithfully," said Sen. Shawn Hamerlinck, R-Dixon. "If this is actually occurring, then yes, it's something the Legislature should look into."

Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, said the issue at hand extended beyond solely nomination petitions.

"I think it goes beyond whether you can pass petitions; I think people have done petitions [in] workplaces before," he said. "I think that's not the issue as much as they had an actual checkoff, and the auditor knew who did and didn't sign it, and that's what I think campaign board will have to investigate or determine."

If the ethics board chooses to approach state government, Jacoby said, proposed code changes could come before the Rules Review Committee, on which he served between 2006 and 2010, or the Government Oversight Committee. However, Jacoby said, it would be important to see if nomination ethics issues were more widespread before making changes to state code.

"You want to be careful not to change law or Iowa Code if there's one person or area abusing it," he said. "You [first] have to collect data for that area or charge that person. I'll be very curious to see the ethics board report even if it doesn't pursue it or send it to Government Oversight," he said.

The board has the option to issue reprimands, civil penalties up to $2,000, or remedial actions such as reimbursement, though it cannot remove a public employee from office or prevent her or him from running for a position.

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