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Iowa House Republicans pass bill to limit state auditor's access to state information

rob sand speaks at a podium
Katarina Sostaric
State Auditor Rob Sand speaks at a news conference Thursday following the passage of a bill that would limit his authority.

Republicans in the Iowa House passed a billThursday that would limit the state auditor’s ability to get information from state agencies and officials while investigating the potential misuse of taxpayer dollars.

The bill passed on a 55-41 vote, with six Republicans joining all Democrats in voting against the bill.

Democrats said the bill is targeting the only Democratic statewide elected official in Iowa, State Auditor Rob Sand.

House Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, pointed out that the Republican-majority legislature gave more power to the newly elected Republican attorney generalearlier this year. She said the bill is a political power grab.

“Iowans elected a Democrat to run the auditor’s office,” Konfrst said. “We shouldn’t be undoing the work of the auditor’s office because someone from a different party was elected.”

House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said it’s not political. He said Republicans believe Sand has sought information that was outside the bounds of what the auditor’s office should access.

“I won’t be here forever—Gov. Reynolds, Sen. Whitver, Rob Sand, whoever the people are—there’s going to be elections,” Grassley said. “There’s going to be new people in these offices, and we would expect, regardless of party, for them to abide by the expectation of what should be in those audits.”

The Senate initially passed the bill in March, and the House amended it Thursday, sending it back to the Senate for consideration.

Sand said the bill would still remove his ability to investigate waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars because state agencies being investigated could choose to hide information if the governor agrees to it.

“It remains the greatest pro-corruption bill in state history, and the worst perversion of checks and balances in Iowa history,” he said.

The bill would block the auditor from accessing certain private information, like medical and student records, unless it’s needed to comply with generally accepted government accounting standards, to comply with other state or federal regulations, or in cases of alleged or suspected embezzlement or theft.

It would also bar the state auditor from taking state agencies and officials to court if they refuse to provide records during an investigation.

Instead, a three-member arbitration board would decide if an agency should give the information to the auditor, and its decision would be final. One member would be appointed by the auditor’s office, one by the agency that’s being investigated, and one by the governor.

“The governor is responsible for what happens at that state agency,” Sand said. “If there’s waste, fraud and abuse there, are they going to choose to let us discover it and show the public? Or are they going to sweep it under the rug? They just gave themselves the power today to sweep it under the rug.”

Rep. Michael Bergan, R-Dorchester, who managed the bill’s passage and is also an accountant, said it’s “customary” for auditors to use binding arbitration.

“The auditor of state, a member of the executive branch, should not sue another member of the executive branch,” he said. “The time and cost involved in such an endeavor is a poor use of public funds.”

A memo from the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency said the previous version of the bill as passed by the Senate “may limit the ability of the auditor to perform oversight” on more than $12 billion of state and federal programs.

Bergan said the House amendment would address those concerns. Democrats disagreed.

And David M. Walker, a former U.S. comptroller general under Republican and Democratic presidents, wrote that thebill would still jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for Iowa. He also wrote that while an arbitration board is fine, but the auditor must have access to the courts as a last resort.

The Institute of Internal Auditors sent a letterto top state officials expressing concerns that the bill could impede the independence of the state auditor by letting those getting audited withhold potentially relevant information.

Republicans highlight Iowa Supreme Court cases involving Sand as reasons for the bill

Bergan also said the bill was needed to respond to an Iowa Supreme Court decision from 2021 that did not define when an audit officially begins. Sand won that case when the Court agreed that he should be able to access the documents he requested from a state agency.

Sand said that happened two years ago and no one ever expressed concerns to him about the case.

Earlier this month, Sand lost a separate Iowa Supreme Court case.

The Court determined he did not have the authority to subpoena records from a government insurance program that was holding public board meetings at fancy resorts in other states. Bergan was a member of that board.

Following the latest Court opinion, three Republican senators filed a records request for all subpoenas issued by the auditor’s office since Sand took office in 2019.

Sen. Michael Bousselot, R-Ankeny, said in a news release that the records request would help determine if Sand had exceeded his authority in other cases.

“SF 478 addresses this problem by putting common sense protections around the most sensitive data of Iowans, like vaccine, firearm, and financial records,” he said.

Sand said the bill would exempt the legislature and the executive branch from lawsuits over records, but the auditor’s office could still take local governments to court. He said that undermines Republicans’ argument that this is about protecting Iowans’ private information, which the auditor is already required by law to keep confidential.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter