IOWA CITY - State and federal auditors said Thursday they're reviewing whether it is appropriate for Iowa elections officials to use federal money meant to improve elections to fund a two-year criminal investigation into potential voter fraud.
The inspector general of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and Iowa's state auditor told The Associated Press they're gathering information from Secretary of State Matt Schultz about his agreement to hire an agent to investigate and prosecute illegal voters such as felons and noncitizens.
Inspector General Curtis Crider sent a letter Dec. 5 asking Schultz's office to turn over records for his review, which comes in response to an October complaint filed by Democratic state Sen. Tom Courtney of Burlington.
"We are in the process of reviewing this complaint and are in need of some information from your records to assist us in evaluating its merits," Crider wrote in the letter, obtained through a public records request. Crider confirmed Thursday the review remained open.
Schultz, a first-term Republican, has drawn criticism from Democrats and civil libertarians for the two-year agreement reached last June with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, which could cost up to $280,000 in funding from the federal Help America Vote Act.
Critics say the effort is a waste of money that intimidates voters and is aimed at bolstering Schultz's top priority to change Iowa law to require voters to show identification. Democrat Brad Anderson criticized the investigation Thursday as he announced his campaign to run against Schultz next year.
Schultz says he is trying to ensure the integrity of Iowa elections. His legal counsel, W. Charles Smithson, defended the use of federal grant money for the investigation in a Dec. 26 response to Crider, saying that punishing acts of election misconduct should qualify as an expense because it will improve the administration of elections, according to a copy obtained by AP.
The agreement requires DCI to dedicate a full-time agent to investigate "for possible prosecution all potential criminal activity in the areas of voting, voter registration, and election misconduct and election administration." In exchange, Schultz's office will pay up to $140,000 in HAVA funds per year for the agent's salary and benefits and travel and communications expenses.
Records released Thursday show DCI submitted a bill dated Dec. 31 for $41,231 for services and expenses incurred under the agreement.
Eight people have been charged with improperly voting or registering since Agent Dan Dawson was reassigned from DCI's major crimes unit to pursue voting cases. They include four Canadians, a Bosnian and a Mexican who allegedly voted in 2010 and 2011 even though they were noncitizens, and two felons who allegedly improperly registered. One of the felons has pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor; other cases remain pending. Schultz has promised more charges will be filed.
Courtney, outgoing chair of the Senate's government oversight committee, said he was encouraged that auditors were taking his complaint seriously. He said the grant money, approved by Congress after the 2000 election exposed problems in Florida, was meant for expenses such as upgrading voting equipment and improving access to polling places.
"It was not to be used to try to dig around and hire an investigator and dig and dig and dig and find a few people that mistakenly voted that shouldn't have," he said. "That's federal money that was never intended to be used for what he's using it for. That's flat-out dead wrong."
Courtney's complaint noted that Iowa's plans to use the grant money approved years ago did not include for such an investigation. Schultz did not ask the government for permission to amend the plan or discuss the issue with a state HAVA advisory committee, his complaint added.
Smithson, Schultz's lawyer, told Crider in his response that the expense is not specifically disallowed under the law and does not represent "a material change" of Iowa's original plans. He provided Crider a copy of the DCI agreement and said it had only cost about $9,000 through Sept. 30.
Courtney's complaint has worried top officials at DCI and its parent agency, who are counting on the money for its budget.
"If the contract is terminated, we'll be left looking for another $140,000 in DCI's budget to balance," then-Iowa Department of Public Safety director of administrative services Dave Heuton warned Commissioner Brian London in an October email obtained by AP.
Warren Jenkins, Iowa's chief deputy auditor, said his office was working with the inspector general to review the spending but cautioned it could take time to reach a conclusion.
"We both have limited resources and are trying to be as efficient as we can," he said. "I'm confident the IG is trying to gather information to help them reach a decision as to whether there is a potential problem or not."