• Press Release

Report: Ernst Campaign’s Close Ties to Dark Money Group Supporting Her Re-Election

December 6, 2019

For Immediate Release

December 6, 2019


Report: Ernst Campaign’s Close Ties to Dark Money Group Supporting Her Re-Election “Potentially Violates the Law”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the Associated Press released a shocking report showing close ties and allegedly illegal coordination between Senator Joni Ernst’s campaign and a dark money group helping her re-election campaign. The dark money group, Iowa Values, was created by Ernst aides who were working for both her campaign and Iowa Values at the same time—coordination that is prohibited by federal campaign finance law.

Mairead Lynn, spokesperson at EMILYs List, released the following statement:

“Joni Ernst went to Congress promising she would take on Washington, but instead she’s become part of the problem. By allegedly illegally coordinating with a dark money group set up to help her own re-election campaign, Ernst has just become another politician who puts her own self interests before working families. Iowans deserve better.”

ICYMI—Associated Press: 'Dark money' ties raise questions for GOP Sen. Ernst of Iowa

Key Points:

An outside group founded by top political aides to Sen. Joni Ernst has worked closely with the Iowa Republican to raise money and boost her reelection prospects, a degree of overlap that potentially violates the law, documents obtained by The Associated Press show.

Iowa Values, a political nonprofit that is supposed to be run independently, was co-founded in 2017 by Ernst’s longtime consultant, Jon Kohan. It shares a fundraiser, Claire Holloway Avella, with the Ernst campaign. And a condo owned by a former aide — who was recently hired to lead the group — was used as Iowa Values’ address at a time when he worked for her.

The documents reviewed by the AP, including emails and a strategy memo, not only make clear that the group’s aim is securing an Ernst win in 2020, but they also show Ernst and her campaign worked in close concert with Iowa Values.

In July, Holloway Avella requested “an investment of $50,000” from a donor after Ernst made an introduction. She made clear in an email, which was obtained by the AP, how much a contribution of that size could help.

“As a follow up to our introduction by Senator Ernst, I am reaching out to you on behalf of Iowa Values,” she wrote.

“It seems like pretty strong evidence” that the $50,000 request was for an “illegal donation” while it’s “clear that the goal of Iowa Values is to reelect Joni Ernst, which may violate its tax-exempt status,” said Brendan Fischer, an attorney with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington.

He also said the documents pulled back the curtain on how dark money works.

“This is a striking example of how secret campaign money operates,” Fischer said. “The big donors that bankroll a dark money group like Iowa Values remain hidden from the public, but the politician that benefits knows where the money is coming from.”

What’s undeniable is the close connection between Ernst and the group.

Kohan, a former Ernst deputy chief of staff who is now a general consultant to her campaign, was paid $120,000 to serve as executive director of Iowa Values for two years, according to the group’s tax filings. He left the group earlier this year. Jamestown Associates, where he is a named partner, also collected an additional $101,000 from Ernst’s campaign in the years he served as executive director.

Holloway Avella raised about $520,000 for Iowa Values in 2017 and 2018, tax records show. The group lists her Arlington, Virginia, office as one of its business addresses and paid her about $60,000. Ernst paid her an additional $363,000 those years, record show.