JOHNSTON, Iowa (AP) — Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said Wednesday there is nothing inappropriate about her decision to spend nearly $450,000 in federal coronavirus relief money on salaries for aides in her office, including her chief of staff and spokesman.
Reynolds addressed the matter at a press conference for the first time since a report was posted Sunday by Laura Belin, publisher of the liberal-leaning online blog Bleeding Heartland. The report, based on information Belin obtained through a public records request to the Iowa Department of Management, indicated 21 employees on Reynolds’ staff will have more than 60% of their salary paid with federal emergency funds from March 14 through June 30.
Reynolds said the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act allow salaries to be paid for workers whose job requirements are significantly changed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“CARES funding can be used for salaries. That’s very clear in what allowable allocations are,” she said.
She said when the first COVID-19 cases were identified in Iowa in early March, she moved half of her staff to a state emergency operations center to organize the state’s response. They worked nine- to 10-hour days, seven days a week on the virus, she said. The other half of her staff remained at the Iowa Capitol, working similar hours answering questions and working to meet the needs of Iowans, Reynolds said.
The governor’s office confirmed the expenditures with the U.S Department of Treasury Office of the Inspector General, said Reynolds’ chief of staff Sara Craig.
Craig said the money hasn’t shown up in CARES Act expenditure documents yet because the governor hasn’t signed the transfer of money but after she does, the spending will show up in public documents.
It wasn’t immediately clear what happens to the state money that had already been allocated to governor’s staffer salaries.
The amount sought from the federal funds for 21 governor’s staff members will total $448,449, Reynolds spokesman Pat Garrett confirmed.
Sen. Joe Bolkcom, the senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said Iowans should have confidence the federal COVID relief funds are being spent to help residents.
“Instead of using funds that are desperately needed to provide relief to hard-working Iowans and closed or struggling businesses hurt by the pandemic, the governor is diverting the relief funding for other purposes. That’s not right,” he said.
While common uses for the money include testing and contact tracing, support for hospitals, and economic support for businesses, there does appear to be a use allocated to “budgeted personnel and services diverted to a substantially different use” in OIG documents.
The OIG’s office did not immediately respond to a message.
Iowa Auditor Rob Sand has confirmed his office will audit CARES Act spending in Iowa. He declined to discuss any details, which he said will be contained in any report his office produces.
Neither the governor nor the Republican-majority Legislature have granted media credentials for Belin, who is open about the support for Democratic ideals. Reynolds’ office did not respond to any of her questions about the spending over a two-week period.
Also at her press conference Wednesday Reynolds criticized the Des Moines school district for not abandoning its online learning program and returning its more than 33,000 students to classrooms. She said other districts have managed to meet her requirement for in-person learning even as the state remains a national hotspot for coronavirus infections.
Des Moines officials argue it’s too risky for students and staff to return to classrooms under Reynolds’ orders.
Education Department Director Ann Lebo said officials would begin a process to potentially punish the district for not being in compliance and students may be required to take additional classes after school usually ends next spring.
As of Wednesday morning, Iowa had 775 new confirmed coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours and one additional death.