Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board opens investigation into Melissa Vine campaign

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“I voted” stickers are scattered over a table at a polling site in Des Moines on Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo By Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
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By Robin Opsahl, Iowa Capital Dispatch

The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board decided Thursday to open an investigation into Melissa Vine’s campaign in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District.

Vine, running as a Democrat the district, was the subject of a complaint made by the Iowa Unity Coalition, a progressive PAC, earlier in May.

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The coalition held a vote April 30 on who to endorse in June 7 Democratic primary between Vine and Lanon Baccam, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture official and Biden campaign staffer. Registered members had to pay $20 to the group to participate in the online vote.

Chair Mitch Henry said in an interview that the PAC saw a sudden increase in members the day of and the day before the vote. During the 24-hour online voting process, large quantities of votes were submitted over the course of one hour. An audit by the Iowa Unity Coalition found that 41 votes were submitted by non-members, and that 43 others were submitted by people who had signed up for the group shortly before the vote and had the same address and credit card information, as well as email addresses linked to Vine’s campaign.

Henry said that 125 new members were registered through ActBlue primarily from April 30 through May 1 as the endorsement voting period began, with 76 registrations flagged as fraudulent.

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At an emergency board meeting held May 1, the organization disqualified 84 votes from the final endorsement count and the Iowa Unity Coalition officially endorsed Baccam May 7.

Henry said the Iowa Unity Coalition contacted four individuals he knew of that were a part of the registration who said they did not register to become a new member, did not pay for membership and did not vote through the coalition’s website in the endorsement process.

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For many of the other individuals involved in the registration surge, he said, it was unclear how many were real people.

“I’ve been involved in in Democratic progressive politics for over 35 years, since the late ’80s, and I don’t recognize 90% of these people,” Henry said. “I’ve done most of my politics in Des Moines, Polk County and all these people supposedly, from the Des Moines, Polk County area. But again, we don’t know for sure because we don’t have a real address, we don’t have a real email. We don’t even have their phone numbers.”

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The investigation will examine whether Vine’s campaign violated state laws banning a person from making contributions or expenditures in the name of another person. Such an action could potentially violate state and federal law by using federal campaign money to make contributions on behalf of individuals to a state PAC.

The actions appear to be tied to Lou McDonald, Vine’s former campaign manager who was fired earlier this week for his actions related to the alleged illegal contributions. In a statement to the Des Moines Register, a Vine campaign spokesperson said that “a staffer took actions that do not reflect our values, and he is no longer a part of our campaign.”

The Vine campaign had earlier called the action a “clerical error,” but Henry said that McDonald made claims in a voicemail that the Iowa Unity Coalition had received illegal contributions.

Henry dismissed this accusation, pointing to recent audits of the organization that have found no illegal contributions.

Zach Goodrich, the executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, said that he plans to “expedite” the investigation as much as possible with the goal of completing it before the June primary. He also stated that the complaint is under the jurisdiction of the board, and that a violation of the state law on contributions could amount to a serious misdemeanor.

“It’s as simple as, if you’re the one who’s paying for it, then you’d better use your name,” Goodrich said.

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