Kim Reynolds’ Private Airplane Problem

For the second time since becoming governor, Reynolds was caught taking a trip with a major GOP donor despite the conflict-of-interest questions it would inevitably pose

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Gage Skidmore/Flickr

By now, you’d think Iowa public officials would know better than to take ethically dubious flights with their political allies. In 2016, Associated Press reporter Ryan Foley broke then-Iowa State University President Steven Leath’s so-called Planegate scandal wide open, likely contributing to his departure months later to Auburn. The following year, after Kim Reynolds succeeded Terry Branstad as governor, the AP broke the news that Reynolds took her first trip as governor on the private jet owned by Gary Kirke, a prominent Republican businessman who was lobbying the state for a Cedar Rapids casino license.

Leath is long gone now, but Reynolds is at it again: On Wednesday, Foley reported that the governor flew to ISU’s football bowl game in Tennessee last December on a plane owned by Sedgwick, a controversial Memphis-based company that’s received millions of dollars from the state of Iowa since 2001 for handling state employees’ workers’ compensation claims.

Sedgwick’s CEO, Bellevue resident Dave North, is a major Reynolds donor — he’s given her campaign committee $110,000 since December 2016, according to the AP report, and claims he reimbursed his company $2,880 for the flight, taken by Reynolds and three family members. A change in Iowa law last year that will likely benefit Sedgwick by reducing workers’ comp benefits has raised additional conflict-of-interest questions, as has the more than $1 million the company has received from the state over the past decade, including when Reynolds was lieutenant governor.

On the same day as the AP report, news broke that Sedgwick had been acquired by the Washington DC-based Carlyle Group in a $6.7 billion deal.

The Reynolds administration defended the half-day Liberty Bowl trip by claiming it included meetings with campaign donors and saying it got prior approval from the state’s Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board, a largely toothless agency that routinely — although not always — gives candidates for public office a pass on their ethically questionable behavior.

However, according to Foley’s report, “Tooker now says she was unaware the airplane was owned by Sedgwick” and “also says she doesn’t know what campaign activity Reynolds engaged in during the trip, which would be required for the flight to be considered an allowable campaign contribution instead of an illegal gift to a public official.”

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.