DES MOINES - State auditors said Thursday that Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz should be prepared to repay federal funds he is using to investigate voter fraud if the federal government concludes it's not a proper use of the money.
Schultz, a Republican, last year agreed to pay the Iowa Division of Criminal investigation up to $280,000 over two years to investigate voter fraud. He's using money allocated to Iowa from the Help America Vote Act, a federal program set up to improve elections.
In October, Iowa Sen. Tom Courtney, a Democrat, requested an audit, claiming Schultz was improperly using the money. Courtney said the funds are intended for education about voting procedures, voter rights and technology, and not for "a voter fraud goose chase."
The state auditor's report released Thursday by Chief Deputy Auditor Warren Jenkins concluded that the Help America Vote Act "does not specifically address whether the investigation of complaints and potential criminal activity is an allowable expenditure under HAVA."
Jenkins said the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which oversees HAVA money, has not responded to a request by its own inspector general to review the Schultz expenditures.
"Because the commission has not yet responded to the Inspector General's question, the Office of Secretary of State should develop a plan to repay HAVA funds should the commission not allow this activity and request repayment," Jenkins said.
The problem is the commission hasn't responded because it has no commissioners.
The commission under HAVA is supposed to have four members nominated by the president and approved by Congress. The last commissioners quit in December 2011 and Congress has not approved any nominees.
With no members, the commission's chief operating officer is overseeing the staff, which manages certification of voting systems and sends out checks to pay states grant money.
Without commissioners, however, the agency cannot advise states on the use of HAVA funds and has told Courtney it could not look further into Schultz's use of the federal grant money until the commission has at least three commissioners to make a quorum that could vote on investigating the issue further.
The Senate Rules and Administration Committee held a confirmation hearing on Wednesday for two people whom President Barack Obama nominated last year but whom Congress failed to approve. Republicans in the House and Senate released statements saying the commission should be dissolved because they don't think it's needed any longer.
The EAC has distributed $3.2 billion in grants under HAVA, which was created after the troubled 2000 presidential election to help election officials ensure the integrity of federal elections and improve voter access at the polls.
Courtney said he's frustrated that the commission can't investigate and he hopes that Congress eventually approves members so the commission can make a determination on the Schultz expenditures.
He was satisfied with the state auditor's report.
"It looks like what they're saying is there's some question about whether what he's doing is legal or not and since there is a question he needs to be prepared to pay back the funds if the commission rules against him," Courtney said.