Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand

Iowa Press | Episode
Jun 14, 2024 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand discusses the work his office is doing, Iowa Democrats, politics and his future.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette and Dave Price, Iowa political director for Gray Television.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa and Iowa Bankers Association.



He's the only democrat holding statewide elected office in Iowa. Will he seek re-election in 2026 or run for a higher office? We'll ask State Auditor Rob Sand on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, June 14th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Our guest today is a native of Decorah. He is a former prosecutor in the Iowa Attorney General's Office. In 2018, he was elected State Auditor and re-elected in 2022. He's currently the only democrat holding statewide office. Rob Sand, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Sand: Thanks, Kay, good to see you.

Henderson: Joining our conversation, Dave Price of the Gray Television stations in Iowa and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Auditor Sand, we see your reports that come out periodically from the office and often detail issues that arise in small communities in Iowa where maybe there aren't a lot of staff in some of these towns. There was a recent one, for example, in the town of Lorimor, population of less than 400, where there are some bookkeeping issues, a $250,000 budget deficit, maybe some improper property tax charges. How prevalent is this issue? And why do these things pop up in small communities across the state?

Sand: It's a problem. There's no doubt about it. We had some red flags in Lorimor. In fact, the same day that we released the Lorimor report, we put out two other reports where the same clerk was in charge of all three cities, Lorimor and the other two as well. Sometimes, to some degree, we have to acknowledge that it can be hard to find the staff that have the training to do this sort of work in rural areas. We have tried to have an impact on that in our office with our Statewide Work Statewide Jobs program where we let our staff live wherever they want. But the bottom line is, right, it's tougher in rural Iowa. We can't really let that excuse everything, though. And the bottom line is, if you are on city council, if you are, whether it's a small county too, if you're on the board of supervisors, you have a fiduciary responsibility and you've got to be careful about who it is you're hiring, you should be looking into their background, looking into their history. This same clerk is someone that has been in the news prior. And you want to make sure that you are, I like to say, leading others not into temptation. Ask for the bank records. Look at them every month. Make sure that the person who is in charge of the money knows that you're looking at the bank records every month because that way no matter what situation they're in, they can avoid that temptation too abuse those tax dollars that they have access to.

Murphy: That situation that you described, we recently had county leaders on this show, and they talked about some of the challenges they face and one way that they address that is by sharing services across counties. But that also, I'm assuming you would say, opens those local governments up to issues like this when you've got one person performing multiple services. And how do you balance that? How do you strike that balance between finding creative ways to address those personnel shortages that you talked about but keeping government operating properly?

Sand: I think sharing services is a great idea. In our government efficiency program, PIE, public innovations and efficiencies, we have service sharing as one of the ways that you can save money. It's a great option in rural Iowa. And there are very few limits, by the way, on how cities and counties as well as school districts in rural areas can share services. If you want to figure out a way to do it, you're essentially allowed to do it. We think that's a great idea. But, again, you want to make sure that the people who are elected are looking at those bank records. My favorite crystal-clear example of this is a case that came out of the Auditor's Office that I prosecuted when I was at the Attorney General's Office. It was a woman who was in charge of the accounts for the Mahaska County Soil and Water Conservation Society. She also was in charge of the accounts for Poweshiek. And some guy on the Poweshiek board every month would say well, let's see the bank records. She stole $200,000 from Mahaska County, didn't touch a penny in Poweshiek. And that's the difference I think between decisions that we make to lead people into temptation versus making sure that they know that they shouldn't be tempted because there's consequences which, frankly, that is the number one biggest problem with the bill that the legislature passed and the Governor signed last year that allows state agencies, in fact requires them, to withhold documents from the Auditor's Office. That list of categories, eight different categories plus a ninth that is like a catch all in case we didn't think of something that we want to hide later, that list of categories if you look at that as a government insider is like a menu. Where do I want to steal money from? Oh, here are the places where if I steal here it's going to be harder for the auditor to find out. Thanks for the tip.

Price: So, if you think this is weakening things and you keep releasing these audits, these small town clerks keep getting busted, clearly there are repercussions, but some of them still keep doing it, so do we need some kind of state legislative action? Are penalties not enough? What could change this?

Sand: The penalties are not enough. I've been asking for five years for the legislature to make large scale theft of taxpayer funds a mandatory prison sentence. They haven't done it yet.

Henderson: What is large scale? What is the definition in your view? Is $200,000, $250,000?

Sand: Oh, much smaller than that. We've pegged it at the same line that is drawn for first degree theft or first-degree fraud. In my seven years when I was at the AG's Office as a prosecutor that was $10,000. I think they bumped it up to $12,000 now. But we just pegged it at that line. So, if you steal $50 from the concession stand at the Decorah swimming pool, which I hope to be at tomorrow, you probably don't need to see prison time for that. But if you're in a position of trust and a position of power over a large amount of tax dollars and you're abusing them over a period of time, absolutely you should. Here's why. This is the kind of crime that we can actually deter by making people understand there are consequences. Two guys at a bar getting in a fight because they're drunk, you're not going to explain to them hey, wait a minute guys, the last two people who got in a fight they went to prison, because they're drunk and they're angry. Crimes of drunkenness, crimes where people are high, crimes of passion, important to punish them and take them seriously. But we don't get to change the thinking of those people the same way we do for people in positions of trust and power who abuse that trust and power to enrich themselves.

Price: This is an awkward example, but we have a sex offender registry. Why is there not a bad actor registry?

Sand: Great idea.

Price: To your point, the woman who was accused of wrongdoing here had already done it elsewhere allegedly. So how can she get rehired?

Sand: Right, I think that's a great idea. There might be something of that sort. I'd have to ask the Iowa League of Cities. There's something that sticks in my head that says maybe they do have a thing like that, but I'm not sure.

Henderson: Speaking of things that you've suggested that the legislature do, you have come out in support of ranked choice voting. Why?

Sand: Because I'm sick of having two choices and I think most other people are too. I'm sick of the meanness, the anger, the exaggeration of people's political positions, the denigration of people. What we get, and this is what every single one of the founders warned us about, there is a quote by one of them, I think it was John Adams, the greatest evil possible in this country is two great parties united only in their hatred of each other. Bingo. Welcome to 2024. We are living, literally, their nightmare. And when you have this sort of team-based mentality, red shirt, blue shirt, you never take the chance to listen to somebody. A lot of people just sort of assume they know all they need to know based on which side you're on. I think that is destructive. I think it stops us from solving problems. It stops us from having conversations where we could find commonalities and actually say oh, that's funny, I never would have guessed you thought that, because we're encouraged to two this line and you're encouraged to not have the conversation because you've got a bunch of people saying the other people on the other side are bad. If you have something else, it could be ranked choice voting, it could be approval voting where okay, here's four candidates for the general election, just vote for all of them that you approve of, whoever gets the most votes wins, very simple. It totally changes the incentives for candidates and even the people who are in it for the right reasons who have a pure heart. It also changes the advice that their cynical consultants give them because then all of a sudden instead of well, you and Dave are running for office together, so just tell everybody that he's a terrible human being and he's a thief and a murderer, then it's like -- because if they're going to vote for you, they can't vote for me under the current system. If you switch to something like approval voting, then the message is well, Dave's got a lot of supporters and they'll really like him, but if you can get some of them to like you a little bit then maybe they rank you second instead of fourth or maybe they give you an approval vote too, so be nice to Dave. It would make politics function more like everyday life, more like every day Iowa. That, to me, would be a good thing.

Henderson: Would an election, conducting an election be more expensive and more time consuming if you have to figure out ranked choice because some of the places that do have ranked choice voting results are not available as immediately as they are now?

Sand: It would not be more expensive, it would actually be cheaper because you would eliminate the potential need for runoff elections like in city elections that we have across Iowa pretty often. So, it would not be more expensive. It typically wouldn't be more time consuming. A lot of -- so, for example, Alaska does this, Maine does this, lots of cities in Utah do this. Fargo, North Dakota does approval voting. There is a good movement afoot across the country of people who are just saying, democrat, republican, democrat, republican, democrat, republican. I am sick of this. I want ballot freedom. I want a real ability to have choices. If I have to spend five more minutes in the ballot booth because I've got to get all of my things filled out correctly, I would so much rather have that five minutes to more fully express myself as a voter and actually be heard more clearly than to go in there and feel like it's just like, well I guess these are my options again.

Murphy: We wanted to ask you a recent Iowa Supreme Court case involving your office and essentially, and you can elaborate on this, but the court has asked, sent it back to the Appeals Court and has asked your office to provide more justification for withholding of certain records in an open records request. Why were some of those records withheld? Tell us about that. And what do you plan to say to convince the court that your office was justified in doing that?

Sand: Sure. The bottom line on this is that we have a legal obligation under Chapter 11 of the Iowa Code to maintain confidentiality. That is a higher level of protection than public records. And so, with most state agencies they just have okay, provide the records, it's just Chapter 22. We have to do this balancing test and it's complicated. What we did is do that balancing test the way we feel was correct, the way we feel we were supposed to, because this is what this suit is after. They are trying to, they asked specifically for our correspondence with two particular people, which is a little bit like your kid says, dad, what am I getting for my birthday? And I'm like, I'm not going to tell you, it's supposed to be a surprise. Well, how about if I guess, then you tell me? And so, they were like, well how about your correspondence with this person and that person? Because what the group is trying to do is go after these folks. We have an obligation, a very broad obligation under the law, to withhold anything that comes in that might be work papers or might be accusations or contain allegations of wrongdoing. So, we have to balance that. At the district court level, we won. They said, you did it right. Went back to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court said, can we get some more details about what happened? Reasonable decision. We'll go back to district court, we'll provide more details and we'll go from there. But I want to point this out too, I've had my name unfairly dragged through the mud for this case. I would rather have that happen than have people who have tips to provide about wrongdoing in state government feel like we would ever hand their names over or their identities over without getting dragged through the mud first. That's important because people need to know that we are willing to do that, that we will go to the mat for them, if we want them to ever tell us what is going on. And here's another example of this, the DNC, the Democratic National Committee out in Washington, D.C., twice made requests of our office for all allegations of wrongdoing by Governor Kim Reynolds. Do you know what we gave them? Nothing, because we can't. We followed the law. This isn't politics, it's us trying to do our job.

Murphy: And so, it's a whistleblower thing? Because the way you described it, I can tell you as a journalist it's not at all uncommon to file a records request based on exchanges between two specific people or whatever. So, that itself isn't enough to protect from open records.

Sand: Well, it depends on what the statute says. And the statute says all allegations of wrongdoing, something to that effect, but here's the big piece of this point, it doesn't say except for journalists. So, our obligation no matter who is asking us about something, no matter who sends us an email that might be something where it's not necessarily reporting a tip, but asking if we're aware of a thing, asking us if we're aware of a thing is the same thing as saying what it is. And so, we don't get to say oh, well that's just a journalist, let's just hand that over. We still have to say, well the law says all allegations.

Henderson: Dave?

Price: You have begun this 99-county tour, I think --

Sand: 100 town halls.

Price: I thought it was 100. So, are you hitting every county?

Sand: And we do both county seats in Lee County, Dave, because then I can say I'm the hardest working elected official in the state of Iowa.

Price: There you have. As you ponder your future here, what will stop you from running for Governor in 2026?

Sand: I don't know. I'll figure it out. I feel like every time I sit down with you guys it's like what's going to happen two years from now? And I keep forgetting my crystal ball.

Price: Well, if you're trying to get yourself out there going on this 100 town hall tour, it would be a soft launch way to get through 2024.

Sand: I completely disagree because of the way we do it. I think the political way to do a 99-county tour is shhh. I was here. You zoom in, you zoom out, you only tell a handful of people. You announce it 24 hours before you're in town. Maybe you don't announce it publicly at all. Maybe you just tour a business with the owners and nobody else knows you're there at all and then you disappear. Risk free. And you can tell everybody, I've been to your county last year. This is the job. We have hit a new high water mark for accessibility for a statewide official. We announced all 100 stops the same day. So, there are cities that we are not, and counties that we are not going to until July, August, September, October. You can look them up right now at and you can find out when I'm going to be in your county. This is public service. I want to represent everybody. And I was thinking about this the other day, actually I realized to me there is a piece of this that is very much faith based. My faith is really important to me and I worship a guy who made a point to spend time with the people that nobody else thought was worth spending time with. And that, to me too, is public service. You are supposed to be accessible to everyone. You are supposed to be available to everyone. I'm looking for new ways to do that. It is hard to plan all 100 of these in advance and announce them the same day. But I want people in Iowa to know, I'll talk to you. You want something you want to ask me about, you want something you want to yell at me about, here I am, this is when I'm going to be there. I think that's important.

Price: But can't it be both?

Sand: Both what?

Price: Can't you fulfill all of these public service, the things you want to fulfill as a public servant to go to all these places, while also pondering your future?

Sand: Look, I'm going to kind of say the same thing but I'll say it shorter and different. If I was focused on just checking the boxes then I'd do it the way it's typically done and I'd zoom in and zoom out. Instead, what I get when I go to these stops is oftentimes a tracker from the other side of the aisle taping everything I say. Why? Because I told them I was going to be there just the same as everybody else. If that is politics, I don't know, you tell me.

Henderson: Speaking of politics, your re-election campaign in 2022 barely got across the finish line against an opponent who did not have the support of Governor Reynolds, the republican who ran against you didn't have the support of the popular republican Governor. Do you think that's why you won?

Sand: Coulda, woulda, shoulda.

Henderson: What is your analysis of 2022 as you contemplate 2026? Is there a relationship at all?

Sand: Not particularly. I think things change, people change, candidates change, environments change. I've said this to people before, Governor Reynolds went out there and claimed publicly, she wanted a new state auditor that wasn't trying to sue her every time she turned around. To audit that statement, we have never sued her. We have sued the University of Iowa. We have never filed anything against the Governor's administration. But the week after she said that, we had the absolute best fundraising week that we had ever had. So, maybe she wasn't vocal about my race because she and her team realized that people like the job that I'm doing and the more they attack, the more we benefit from those attacks.

Price: She also didn't get the nominee she wanted.

Sand: She didn't get the nominee she wanted. I don't know what difference that would have made.

Murphy: You have talked just at this table here in the last few minutes about your faith. Do you have -- what would you say to your party, the democrats, who fair or not are seen by a lot of voters as a party that is detached from faith, they don't find that connection with democratic candidates the way they do republicans? Do you have any advice to your party on that?

Sand: I think there's a lot of people in the Democratic Party who do a really good job of centering their faith. I think that was a really important piece for Barack Obama and his ascension is being willing to talk about it. It's an important motivator for me. I think a lot of voters out there want to know what makes you tick. There's a lot of people who look at the situation and they're like, well, again, broken system, two choices. I'm curious who these people are. And I think we can tell people what motivates us, what we care about in life, and I think that gives a lot of people a reason to think about voting for us, but also to me if people look at what I'm doing and they see good in what I'm doing, I would like them to know that a huge piece of what motivates this good is my faith. And that's important to me too.

Henderson: Speaking of a two-party system, there are a lot of people who look at the presidential race this time around, which is the only statewide race in Iowa, they're not motivated. You're campaigning with democrats running for legislative seats and others. What is your message to democrats who just think I don't like either of my choices, I don't care to vote?

Sand: Yeah, well look, my message to everybody is vote, period. I think the more voters that we have out there the better. I think the more people's voice is heard the better. And I think then we end up getting a government that is more reflective of people, of what people want.

Henderson: So, that has Biden done that you can argue has helped Iowa? Because the party chair of your party was on this program last week and said, we're going to go out there and make that argument.

Sand: Sure. Well, look at what he did with Chuck Grassley, bipartisan infrastructure deal. There's four republican members of Congress from the state of Iowa who love to brag about all of the money that is getting spent in their districts, although they voted against that bill. So, good for Chuck Grassley for working with the President to get that done. I think that is a huge accomplishment. Are we 49th in the country for our bridges, the state of our bridges? And now we're getting all this money in here for infrastructure and that was in part because of that bipartisan infrastructure bill.

Price: What do you see as your role -- so piggyback off Kay here -- you're out helping some of these state legislators, what is your role going through 2024 to try to get more Ds into office? How do you see yourself? You are the only statewide democrat.

Sand: Yeah, and there's more of an expectation, more pressure for me to do that because of that status. Look, I'm going to advocate for candidates that I think are good candidates. We have had eight years of one-party control in the state of Iowa, eight years where republicans have had complete control over the Senate and the House and the Governor's mansion, giving them complete control over the budget and lawmaking. And I think if that happens in, when that happens in blue states, you see eventually that party begin to serve a smaller and smaller number of insiders because they feel entitled to their positions, they don't feel accountable to the people at large that they are supposed to be representing, and they feel like it's their party's place. I think we're there in the state of Iowa. You look at a lot of different things that do not have the public's support that have been priorities for this unified control. And I think more and more voters are getting turned off by that.

Murphy: So, what is your role specifically? Is it traveling the state to make that case? Or what is your job?

Sand: Look, my job is --

Murphy: In the campaign --

Sand: All right. I'm going to do what I've done before. I'm going to be participating in fundraisers, I'm going to help folks raise money. If I get asked to go do an event for a legislative candidate, I'll probably do that. If I get asked to do an event for a congressional candidate, we've got some great congressional candidates running, I'll probably do that too.

Henderson: And I'm going to do what I've done many times before and tell you we are out of time for this conversation.

Sand: It always goes so fast.

Henderson: Thanks for being here today.

Sand: You bet.

Henderson: You may watch every episode of Iowa Press at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

Elite Casino Resorts is a family-run business rooted in Iowa. We believe our employees are part of our family and we strive to improve their quality of life and the quality of lives within the communities we serve.

Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at