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Iowa governor auctioned off access for pork barons' charity

FILE - In this Sept. 29, 2020 file photo, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state's response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference in Johnston, Iowa. At a 2019 event, Reynolds auctioned off an afternoon of her time to the highest bidder to raise money for her top campaign donors' charity. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds auctioned off an afternoon of her time to raise money for the namesake charity of a couple who own one of the nation's largest pork producers and have contributed nearly $300,000 to her campaign.

The 2019 auction to benefit the Deb and Jeff Hansen Foundation provides a striking example of the Republican governor's close relationship with the state's pork industry and particularly Iowa Select Farms, owned by the West Des Moines couple. Company staff members run the Hansens' foundation, which sponsors charitable programs including giveaways of pork products to needy families.

Details of the auction surfaced recently in public records the governor's office released to Direct Action Everywhere, an animal rights group that has accused Iowa Select of mistreating hogs.

The records show Reynolds has supported policies Iowa Select has sought, made several appearances for the corporation and its charity, and routinely spoken with Jeff Hansen.

The day after Reynolds won a four-year term in November 2018, Iowa Select's public affairs director wrote to an aide in the governor’s office to “request you save the date” on Reynolds' calendar so that she could attend a Hansen foundation gala scheduled for six months later. The Hansens had been her top campaign donors.

Reynolds not only attended their May 10, 2019, event but turned her state position into one of the night’s most lucrative auction items.

The event at a Des Moines hotel featured auctions for goods ranging from wine to tickets to sporting events, and the crowd included Iowa Select employees and business partners. The time with Reynolds was advertised as an “afternoon with Iowa’s leading lady.”

The “one-of-a-kind package” for four would begin with lunch at the state mansion where the governor lives and proceed to the Capitol for discussion and “a personalized tour of the building where all of Iowa’s legislative action happens."

“From the top of the gold dome to the Governor’s office, you’ll be treated to a tour unlike any other!” it said.

Influential pork industry executive Gary Lynch, a major GOP campaign donor who owns Lynch Livestock in Waucoma, made the winning bid of $4,250.

Reynolds spokesman Pat Garrett said the event was one of many in which the governor auctioned off meals and tours for charity in 2018 and 2019, before she paused the practice during the pandemic.

Others that benefited included educational, civic and medical groups, such as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the Science Center of Iowa. Reynolds also participated twice in the annual charity auction of grocery store chain Hy-Vee.

“All of these are great causes that help people in need,” Garrett said.

Lawyers for former Democratic Govs. Chet Culver and Tom Vilsack say their administrations never auctioned off the governors' time for a donor's charity, which they said carried the appearance of impropriety.

“I'm not aware of a single instance in Gov. Culver's tenure where we got anywhere close to that kind of use of a governor’s time or resources or public spaces,” said Culver aide Jim Larew.

Former Vilsack general counsel Gary Dickey said constituents' access to the governor should not be up for auction, calling Reynolds' participation “a colossal error in judgment.” Vilsack served as U.S. agriculture secretary under former President Barack Obama, and President Joe Biden has nominated him to fill that role again.

Lynch, who declined comment, has donated more than $100,000 to Reynolds’ campaigns since 2016. Weeks after he won the auction, Reynolds was a keynote speaker at Lynch's annual charity banquet in Decorah.

Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board director Mike Marshall said he did not believe the auction violated any campaign finance laws. He said he saw no indication that the governor's participation in the fundraiser was contingent upon the Hansens' campaign contributions or that public resources were used for political purposes.

The auction wasn't the only favor for Iowa Select and its owners. Reynolds made a cameo in a cooking video for its employees last summer, spoke at a ribbon-cutting for a new warehouse in Osceola and her staff once flew one of the company's flags over the Iowa Capitol.

“It is AMAZING. She hit on so many talking points in a short period of time,” Jennifer Crall, Iowa Select's director of public affairs, wrote to the governor's office about a video Reynolds recorded for the charity in 2018.

Before Reynolds participated in its Christmas pork loin giveaway that year, Crall supplied the governor's office with talking points that included, “What a great example of Iowa farmers giving back.”

The access paid dividends when the coronavirus disrupted the pork industry.

Iowa Select pushed Reynolds' office to keep meatpacking plants open at full capacity after outbreaks slowed production, for aid programs to benefit producers and to arrange drive-thru COVID-19 testing at its corporate office in West Des Moines.

Iowa Select spokeswoman Jen Sorenson said the company feels “an important responsibility” to educate elected officials on Iowa's multibillion-dollar animal agriculture industry, saying it leads to better policy.

Reynolds' spokesman Garrett said the governor “has a strong relationship with Iowa producers.”

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement policy director Adam Mason said his group, which has opposed Iowa Select's expansion on environmental grounds, has been unable to get a meeting with Reynolds for years. He said the Hansens' charity buys good will in communities where their farms pollute the air and water with hog manure.

“The general criticism that we have the best government money can buy — this is that actually happening,” Mason said. “She is auctioning off her time to representatives of this industry, and not only that, bending over backward to do it and to make a donor happy. If it's not illegal, it should be."