Governor Kim Reynolds paid a visit Friday to the town of Bloomfield in southern Iowa, where she promoted the efforts of former state Senator Mark Chelgren, a businessman and fellow Republican, who recently started producing face shields to protect against the coronavirus — but who also has a history of shady business practices, as the Informer has previously extensively reported.
Reynolds posed for photos with Chelgren in a conference room, both of them wearing the sort of clip-on face shields that infectious disease researchers at the University of Iowa have said could allow the country to reopen more safely and quickly. “Every day, Iowa manufacturers like Ability Products Inc. work around the clock to equip our state and the nation with the proper PPE to protect against COVID19!” Reynolds said in a comment posted to social media along with two of the photos, referring to the company Chelgren launched after leaving the Statehouse.
Meeting with Chelgren was an interesting choice for Reynolds, whose administration is under scrutiny for awarding no-bid contracts totaling $8.5 million to a Des Moines political marketing company for it to procure protective equipment for healthcare workers despite having no past experience in the area. The company, Competitive Edge, is run by David Greenspon, a prominent GOP donor who was convicted last week on an aggravated misdemeanor charge for physically assaulting a woman. The governor has also faced criticism for signing a $26 million, no-bid contract for COVID-19 testing with a group of ethically challenged Utah tech firms on the advice of actor and Iowa native Ashton Kutcher.
Chelgren decided against running for a third term in the state Senate in March 2018, a year after NBC News revealed that he had misrepresented a certificate he received for completing a management course offered by a Sizzler steakhouse franchisee as a business degree. As the Ottumwa lawmaker formerly known as Chickenman for his loincloth-clad RAGBRAI exploits faced widespread mockery in the report’s wake, the Informer began receiving tips from Iowans familiar with some of his other dubious business practices.
In March 2007, Chelgren purchased a warehouse property on the outskirts of Ottumwa at 11470 Terminal Avenue, the address he began using for over half a dozen companies he founded before and since acquiring the property. The majority of them remain active, at least according to records filed with the secretary of state’s office.
One of the businesses is Fizzix LLC, a machine shop and urethane manufacturer Chelgren started around the same time that was also apparently connected to a business that’s not on file with the state called Epic Defense, which advertised “custom built AR-15 rifles.” Months before starting this business, Chelgren was charged with misdemeanor assault for allegedly leaving his 17-year-old stepson with “a swollen and bloody upper lip,” according to a criminal complaint. As the Informer reported, the charge — which he ultimately pleaded down to disorderly conduct — could have stripped him of his gun ownership rights. It may have been the reason for why his wife, Janet, was the one who obtained Epic Defense’s firearms manufacturing license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives despite having nothing to do with the business, according to a tipster. After our report was published, a separate website for the business with the URL FizzixFirearms.com was taken down.
Before the Chelgrens moved to Ottumwa, they lived in Vinton, where Janet ran a business called Hilda’s Flower Shop. According to Cindy Elwick, who at the time owned another flower shop in town, the Chelgrens pressured her to stop selling products that Janet’s shop also carried. When they left for Ottumwa in 2006, they sold the shop to Elwick — apparently without informing her of the significant debts Hilda’s still owed. “For over a year, people were still calling me trying to collect from them,” Elwick recalled. “We had a lot of trouble with their bad debts — which I did not have to pay.”
Chelgren’s Bloomfield business that Governor Reynolds visited Friday, Ability Products, describes itself as the “exclusive North American distributor” of wheelchair parts and accessories manufactured by the Germany-based company Rolko. Ability Products was established with the assistance of Ottumwa attorney Robert Breckenridge, whose former law partner, Kenneth Duker, helped Chelgren launch Fizzix LLC but endorsed his Democratic opponent in 2010 and soon thereafter stepped down as president of the firm. Ability Products was initially formed as an LLC through a certificate of organization filed in June 2019 with the secretary of state’s office signed by Tracy Van Weelden, a bookkeeper employed by a wheelchair parts manufacturer co-founded by Chelgren in the mid-’90s called Frog Legs Inc.
Frog Legs is named after what’s perhaps Chelgren’s most legitimate accomplishment, the invention of shock-absorbing caster forks that resemble the shape of a frog’s legs and are installed on wheelchairs to reduce pain and discomfort from vibrations. It’s also responsible for the existence of Ability Products, according to an article published in early June in the industry trade publication Mobility Management. “Ability Products was kind of a happy accident,” Patrick Meeker, the company’s vice president of sales, told the publication. Chelgren “was looking to have better European distribution for Frog Legs and got into a discussion with Rolko at REHACARE,” he explained, referring to a rehab and care trade show held in Düsseldorf, Germany at which Chelgren met Rolko CEO Torsten Eikemeier, who is also named as the CEO of Ability Products on the company’s website (Chelgren is its president and, according to a document filed with the secretary of state’s office, owner.)
Although Frog Legs’ early successes earned Chelgren plaudits in Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack’s 2000 Condition of the State address, that same year, another relationship with a medical care products company based in Ohio called Invacare that Chelgren had established at a trade show in New Orleans soured.
In a lawsuit, Chelgren accused Invacare of violating an agreement for distributing Frog Legs products through subsidiaries in Australia and New Zealand by using confidential information to develop and fit wheelchairs used by athletes set to compete in the Paralympic Games in Sydney with branded “knock-off” shock absorbers of inferior quality. Eight days before the beginning of the Sydney games, Chelgren requested a restraining order that would have prevented the athletes from competing in the wheelchairs they’d been using. The request was denied by the judge hearing the case, who noted that it “would alter the mode of performance for athletes which they had chosen months, and possibly even years, ago to use in to compete.” The judge also determined that Chelgren failed to present evidence of the products’ inferior quality. Ultimately, a confidential settlement agreement was reached, and the business relationship survived.
Ability Products was initially registered with the same Ottumwa warehouse address as Chelgren’s other companies, including Frog Legs. However, on November 26, documents signed by Mark and Janet Chelgren were filed to convert the company into Ability Products, Inc., and identify a third director, Bloomfield resident Chris Ball, a former city employee who was active in its energy efficiency initiatives and is named as Ability Products’ chief operating officer. In the process, the company’s address was changed to 398 West 230th Street in Bloomfield, a town in Davis County that neighbors Ottumwa’s Wapello County to the south along the Iowa-Missouri border.
In March 2017, a Democratic Wapello County Supervisor named Jerry Parker told the Informer that Chelgren had called him the previous August threatening to move his businesses out of the county if the board passed an ordinance to raise the minimum wage. (The board did this the following month, although a state law passed soon thereafter overturned local minimum wage hikes.) Others suggested he was already planning to move some of his businesses in the event that he lost his 2014 re-election bid. According to property records, the Bloomfield address for Ability Products is another warehouse that was purchased by Chelgren and his wife from Davis County on September 14, 2015, for $216,000. Although the Ottumwa warehouse was listed for sale at the time Parker spoke with the Informer, property records show that Chelgren continues to own and operate his other businesses from the site.
Friday in Bloomfield, as COVID-19 cases were again rising across he state, Governor Reynolds expressed her appreciation for Iowans, according to a report in the Ottumwa Courier. “They’ve been diligent and really being mindful and doing what they need to do.” The article claimed that Ability Products had recently begun to produce 14,000 masks per day for use in Iowa, the Midwest region, and “overseas to countries like Canada and Germany.” Chelgren reportedly added that the face shields were being considered for use at schools in the area as they plan for how they’ll reopen for the fall semester.