Auditor of State Rob Sand

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa Auditor of State Rob Sand discusses the work of his office, his new book and Democratic politics. 

Moderator Kay Henderson is joined at the Iowa Press table by Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, and Clay Masters, lead political reporter and host for Iowa Public Radio.

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

Iowa Press | Episode
Apr 29, 2022 | 27 min

Transcript

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Iowa's State Auditor is focused on everything from ongoing investigations and municipal audits to an upcoming political campaign. We sit down with State Auditor Rob Sand on this edition of Iowa Press.

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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. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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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, April 29th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 

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Henderson: For regular viewers of this program, over the past several weeks we've had statewide elected officials share their views. We had the Governor, we had the State Treasurer, the State Attorney General, we had the Secretary of Agriculture and last week we had the Secretary of State. This week we have Rob Sand, he is the State Auditor. Welcome back to the program.

Sand: Thanks, Kay. Nice to be here.

Henderson: Also joining the conversation are Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Murphy: Rob, you recently published a book that details your involvement back when you worked in the Attorney General's office about the famous lottery fraud case here in Iowa. Tell us why you wanted to write that book.

Sand: Because it's a crazy story. I mean, you've got rigged jackpots in five different states, these good old boys from Texas, Bigfoot hunters, like people who literally go into the woods to look for Bigfoot, this shady Canadian lawyer with a trust in Belize. There was a point when I was prosecuting that case, I don't remember what specifically it was, but I started writing down what was happening for posterity thinking maybe someday I'd tell my grandkids. It's just such a wild story that I think it needs to be told in full.

Murphy: On our side of the table here, when we see an elected official writing a book that often signals to us their intention to run for president or at least some other higher office. You decided against a run for governor. Is this laying the groundwork for something else in 2026?

Sand: No. Anyone who reads the book will be pleasantly surprised to see it's a book by someone in elected office that is barely having anything to do with being in elected office. It is not about my political views. The last half of the last chapter is sort of like the aftermath and I do talk about leaving the office and running for State Auditor. But it's like 5% of the book. It is just a true crime caper.

Masters: A year ago when you were on this show you said you were kind of trying to narrow things down on running for re-election or running for the governor's race or maybe running for U.S. Senate. Obviously you're running for re-election now for State Auditor. Are you kind of having some FOMO, some fear of missing out as you're watching some of these other candidates run?

Sand: No. The biggest FOMO for me when I was deciding was thinking about my kids and my wife. She and I are kind of grown, our kids are not, they are five and a half and just turned eight. And the thing for me that was really hard was imagining running for higher office and winning and actually feeling like sadness to be sort of looking back at my kids saying okay, we just got you to the point where we're out of diapers and you're getting a little more independent and now I'm going to go be more busy. And I didn't want to do that. That was my FOMO was family.

Masters: Let's move on to one of your fellow democrats who is running for U.S. Senate, Abby Finkenauer, former Congresswoman. She almost didn't make the ballot. And when that was going forward there was some criticism that came forward from her about a district court judge. Was that appropriate to make those comments?

Sand: No it wasn't.

Henderson: Why?

Sand: I am really proud of Iowa's court system. We have one of the country's crown jewels in a non-partisan judicial nominating system. I am upset that with their unified control of the legislature and the Governor's Office that the republicans in Iowa have continued to tinker and that and put politics back into it. But that judge did his job. He worked all weekend to get that report issued on a Sunday night in order to give whoever was going to be the losing party a chance to appeal. And it's a well-respected judge. It doesn't mean that judges, they're human beings, they have their political views, but we have a very good system in Iowa that sorts out the people who want to go in there and be political. And so what we end up with is a body of judges who do a good job of applying the facts to the law.

Henderson: So, former Attorney General Bonnie Campbell, an attorney, just endorsed one of Abby Finkenauer's opponents, Michael Franken. Do you think that endorsement was related to what Abby Finkenauer did in this instance?

Sand: You'd have to ask Bonnie Campbell about that.

Henderson: But what are you hearing from the legal community since you're a lawyer and have been part of it?

Sand: Most people share my views on that. And to Abby's credit I want to say this, when this was happening I called her and I told her how I felt about it. She and I have known each other for four years now, we have a pretty good relationship. I told her what I thought. And to her credit she said, thank you for this, we're going to step back some of this and tone some of this down. So, politics is tough. I think sometimes having people that you have a decent relationship with who you can call and give a perspective to can be useful and to her credit, when we had the conversation she decided that she didn't want to do that anymore.

Henderson: You are a member of the State Appeal Board, which is a three-member body, which essentially approves the settlements when there is wrongdoing in state government. You have a policy of voting no on settlements that involve sexual harassment. There are those who say that is unfair to the victims because they want to move on, have this settlement and wash their hands of the legal maneuvering. Why do you think your no vote is the right course?

Sand: So, let me be clear, I vote no on sexual harassment when it is so bad that we could actually file a lawsuit to go after the perpetrator of the harassment. That isn't ever case. But we have a law that is sitting there in the state of Iowa that we have never used to hold these people personally accountable. And there are victims who feel that way, but there are also victims I have spoken to, and I'll say Kirsten Anderson would be one of them who said, if I had known, if someone had told me that we could have personally held the people accountable who did this to me, I may have settled for less money. To her and to a lot of people that experience this, you can have a situation where you don't want taxpayer money, you want justice. And I went into courtrooms across the state for a long time at the Attorney General's Office seeing the magnitude of people who could not serve on a jury when it had to do with sexual offenses because they had personal experience or family members had personal experience with wrongdoing where they were mistreated or they were assaulted. It is an epidemic and if we don't start holding people personally accountable for it we are not going to change it.

Henderson: And to help viewers who may not know who Ms. Anderson is, just briefly, she was a state employee who --

Sand: Yeah, she worked for the State Senate and experienced a great deal of harassment. Actually she has a book coming out soon that I'm reading through right now. And she tells her story in it, but it was really life changing for her. And so she ended up going to trial, I think they ended up settling after trial, multi-million dollar settlement. And here's the issue as I see it, every time this happens that settlement is paid with taxpayer dollars. Why? Taxpayers didn't do that sexual harassment. We have a law sitting there that will allow us in these certain cases that are bad enough to go after the people who did it and hold them personally accountable. Dave Jamison, Dave Jamison, we did settlements for his sexual harassment that I voted against that were multiple millions of dollars --

Henderson: And he was the head of the Iowa Finance Authority.

Sand: Different case. His expected IPERS payout for the rest of his life is $1.7 million. So, not only did we cover him for sexual harassment but now we're going to pay his IPERS? We should be able to take that back, we should be able to take that back and I want to do that because, number one, it protects taxpayers, and number two, it prevents other people in the future from being victimized.

Murphy: What is the pushback you get for when you make that pitch? Why not go after these people individually?

Sand: We've never done it that way. Part of it is the victim's perspective. I've worked with victims. We can't pretend that they all think one way or all think another way and sometimes it matters on the case. But we've never done it that way is a big piece of it. Well, okay, do we want everything to continue being the same with how we handle sexual harassment? Or maybe we should do things that we haven't done before to try to change it.

Murphy: Moving on, your office recently issued a report about the state Department of Natural Resources not complying with certain requirements in the federal Clean Air Act having to do with a couple of different things including preserving wetlands. The DNR's response to your office was essentially in some cases an admission that they weren't complying but that for myriad reasons they were just unable to. Do you accept those responses? Does your office accept the DNR's throwing their hands up?

Sand: Well, so we don't have any option -- our office in our system of checks and balances we can investigate and report. We can't force the DNR to do anything. And so in terms of us accepting it, well we investigate and report, we included their responses in that report, and so that is sort of what it is. It is up to the DNR and its administration to decide which of those pieces they want to change. And I want to point out in interest of fairness, there were other things that were in that report where we had findings where they basically said, thanks, you're right, we're going to get that addressed. So I think it wasn't -- one of the examples is they pointed out an issue where there is a board that doesn't have anyone on it and they said, we've never done that since 1990. Well, okay, it's not really a good excuse for not following the law, but it's also a fair point. If you're going to educate the DNR about what their obligations are, their answer might be I didn't know that was there because we've never had it before.

Masters: So if you can't enforce things in your office, this looks like a fairly troubling audit though. Do you feel like the DNR is doing its job in regulating clean air and clean water in the state of Iowa?

Sand: That's a much broader question and I think it gets into a lot of different issues. We have findings related to the Clean Water Act, we have findings related to the Clean Air Act. To me, if the law says we should be doing this, then either we do it or we change the law. I don't like the talk of well we've never done it that way or we haven't done that yet, let's just be doing it.

Henderson: Legislators are, to just boil it down, passing a law that essentially says your office is a legit CPA firm. Why?

Sand: Because of the concerns of the CPA community that I think long-term in the future of the state of Iowa could be justified. People were a little, in that community, concerned when I was running and when I got elected because my specialty isn't what the other half of the office does, public corruption investigations. I was the lead public corruption prosecutor for seven years at the Attorney General's Office and the office does those essentially two things, financial audits and public corruption investigations. The new statute I think is just fine. It won't change the way that our office operates because I already have CPAs in the position that they are now going to be mandating be held by CPAs. So I think it's a fine statute. I think what it does is it respects the role and the obligations which could impact the state's bond rating and other issues if you had those jobs held by people who are not CPAs. So I think it's a good idea in the long-term.

Henderson: Before the pandemic you announced an office policy whereby you would let people who worked in the agency live outside of Central Iowa. How is that working out?

Sand: Good.

Henderson: How many are?

Sand: More than a handful. A lot of people have put decision-making on hold with major life changes in the pandemic. We've got someone that we just hired who is already living outside of the Des Moines area, out in a rural part of the state who is going to stay there. We recently promoted someone who is out in a different part of the state in Western Iowa. We had someone who actually ends up spending lots and lots of time up in Clayton County up in my neck of the woods near Decorah. And we had someone who moved to Mount Pleasant who they don't work for the office anymore but they were able to take a job in Mount Pleasant with a local firm only because they already lived there. That local firm just wasn't taking applicants who didn't want to be there as measured by the fact of whether or not they were there already. So I think it's a good policy. We don't force people to do it but we want people to have that option because I know, as someone who grew up in a small town, how much it means to have new people come to town. And I think state government is paid for by everybody in the state and so we should be distributing the benefits including the jobs of state government as broadly as possible.

Murphy: The University of Iowa Hospitals a little while back entered into a $1.2 billion deal to have a foreign company operate its utilities. Your office got involved with some concerns over basically public records and transparency involved in that deal. The Iowa Supreme Court ruled in agreement with your office. That has been a while now. We haven't heard, are those records coming forth? Is the University of Iowa producing those records? Or are they still stonewalling?

Sand: No, they have produced the records in accordance with the court's order. Our office, we have got a lot of people in there, about 100 who work really hard and we get stuff out typically as soon as we can. And so what we'll have to report on that I don't know, but we'll get it out when we can. What I think is really important about that case is this, regardless of whether or not we find any wrongdoing, it sets the precedent that if the Auditor comes on behalf of the taxpayers of the state of Iowa and asks for documents that have to do with how the public's business is being conducted we will not walk away when we ask for something that we have the legal right to access. That's important. That sets a real precedent for people who are supposed to be doing the public's business because then they know that they can't just shoo us away and say, don't give them that. And that is important because we want people to have accountability there.

Henderson: Your office is the subject of a lawsuit seeking information from your office, some email. What is your office policy in regards to public records?

Sand: Well, we have a statute. Anyone at home who wants to read it, it is Iowa Code Chapter 11.42. You can go ahead and Google that and pull it right up. Our office has confidentiality obligations. That exists because we are essentially a repository for whistleblowers. People from across state government who are employees or local government actually have a legal obligation to report wrongdoing. And so public records are important, but protecting whistleblowers is more important. We have that specific piece of code that gives us that heightened protection for those records. We are not going to out whistleblowers. We are not going to play a guessing game as to oh, was it this person who emailed you about that? Was it that person who emailed you about that? We're going to protect them because we want people to have confidence that if they have wrongdoing to report about government insiders or public officials they can go to our office and know that they are going to be held in confidence.

Masters: Four years ago when you were elected to the position of State Auditor, I remember talking to you soon after you were elected and one of the most important things to you from the get-go was looking into Medicaid managed care in the state. As you're running for re-election, is there more work to be done on that? Or do you feel like you've investigated that thoroughly?

Sand: I think that at this point what we have to do with Medicaid and what we have done already puts us closer to being finished with it than we have additional investigations that we have going on.

Masters: What have you done already? How would you kind of summarize it?

Sand: We've issued three reports. One had to do with the contracts. We compared them to other states. We found that ours were in some places good and in some places not as good, but that is useful for all states. Remember, someone from Oregon contacted us and said thanks, we're going to use this for our negotiations with MCOs. We had a report on providers' views of privatization, talking to providers across the state in different professions who were working under the system prior to privatization and after. And we also looked at the decisions from independent judges, administrative law judges, as to whether or not a Medicaid member, someone receiving Medicaid, had an adverse decision in their case that was appropriate or inappropriate and found that the number that were treated inappropriately really went way up under privatization.

Masters: I want to circle back on something, just speaking more big picture here, when you issue these kinds of audits, you said that there's not much regulation behind it or you can't force organizations or agencies to make changes, earlier you were talking about concerns about politics playing into the judicial branch. Do you feel as a democrat issuing these audits in a largely republican dominated state that they are taking these seriously? Or do you feel like it's just kind of politics playing out?

Sand: You know, I can't control how they think about their jobs. I can't control what they do. What I can control is what we do in our office. We have a democrat, an independent, a republican in senior leadership positions. People who had contributed to my opponent in 2018 I promoted in the office. I actually did it again just recently. I don't care. I am not here to serve a party, I am here to serve everyone. We also have audits that we have issued about the administration that have defended the administration, not because we wanted to even things out, but because it was the truth. A good example of that is pandemic data. There were a lot of people who said, hey wait a minute, why are these cases getting added so late? Why are you showing these new positive cases six months after the test was completed? Are you trying to keep those positivity rates artificially low? We audited that and we said, no, it's not happening. Actually what is happening is private labs all around the country who did not have the capacity for a pandemic volume of tests were submitting tests late to the Iowa Department of Public Health. The Iowa Department of Public Health is trying to keep up. We didn't just issue that report either. One of the things that I do is I always want to try to move our conversations in this state in a more civil and a more factual direction. So weeks after we saw that when there was a guy I know from Iowa City whose heart is in the right place who hadn't seen it who posted a comment about how they were sneaking numbers in back up, I didn't sit quiet about it. I said, that's not accurate. Here is the report that we issued. That is not happening. That's not the truth. Because my job again at the end of the day is we've criticized people but we're going to defend them too when that is what the facts call for.

Murphy: So that goes beyond a nice segway to straight stealing my next question. I was going to ask you about that report. So I'll just ask you, after having gone through that now, that was obviously a big topic throughout the pandemic was how the state was managing that data and presenting it publicly. Could I trouble you for a letter grade on how the state presented those numbers?

Sand: I remember being asked for a letter grade when I was here before. If we do letter grades we're not talking facts. If we do letter grades we're not giving people who are watching information.

Henderson: Well, let's move onto different information. You questioned the Governor's use of federal pandemic money for a video that featured the Governor and former Governor Tom Vilsack encouraging people to get vaccinated. Why?

Sand: Because we have a statute -- let me be clear, that same report, everybody seems to miss this, criticized democrats for doing the same thing. That same report didn't just mention that Reynolds had done it, it also mentioned that the Polk County Board of Supervisors had done the same thing. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. We said that neither of them should be doing that. The reason why is --

Henderson: Even in a public health emergency?

Sand: Well, there is a lot of detail in this one as to when a public health emergency makes it appropriate. We believe that our interpretation of that statute is accurate. And if I'm wrong on that, then I'm wrong on behalf of all taxpayers in talking about the issue and raising it, not wrong on behalf of one party.

Henderson: Your party, the Iowa Democratic Party, is going to have to make a case to the Democratic National Committee that Iowa's Caucuses should remain first. What case would you make?

Sand: That experience matters in doing this. I talked to a reporter who has been a national reporter for a long time during the caucuses last time and I remember he has traveled all over the country. And he's like, you know what, you guys actually are, you're really good at this. I mean, I go to New Hampshire a lot and they've got experience with it too, but the quality of the questions that are asked of the person who wants to be the next leader of the free world in the state of Iowa are just head and shoulders above any other state.

Henderson: But that's not the issue. The issue is participation. The caucuses prevent people from participating because of the mode of the voting and also it has got this weird caucus math.

Sand: Yeah. We can continue to make reforms. I think that's fine. We can make the changes. But Iowa culturally has that attentive population that is good I think at asking those questions and filling that role and I think it would be a mistake for us to not be going first.

Masters: In the run-up to 2020, pretty much every democratic candidate running for president seemed to want to appear with you, maybe get your endorsement. Do you feel like they actually liked being here?

Sand: Um -- I don't know if anyone has ever asked me that before. I'm not going to name names but some of them absolutely and some of them not so much.

Masters: Okay.

Murphy: There is an election later this year. Iowa democrats, all candidates are out there fundraising. In this past year, in 2021 there were some concerns expressed by a couple of democratic candidates. Ras Smith, who briefly ran for Governor, talked about having great difficulty getting his campaign financing off the ground. Deidre DeJear, running for Governor, had a very low fundraising year. Her campaign says that has improved since but in 2021 did not have good numbers. Do you have concerns about what is happening within Iowa democratic fundraising circles and supporting candidates that are running for these state offices? The party is trying to flip a lot of seats.

Sand: Yeah, look, I can't tell you that any one person's experience and the way they portray it or talk about it is either, I can't validate it or invalidate it, right? It was their experience, it was what they went through. I can tell you this, all of us always talk about how campaigns are too long, all of us always talk about how we wish it could be compressed, right? At the time these conversations were happening was often times close to a year in advance of the campaign. I think there were a lot of people who wanted to see who was running, if anyone else was running, and then they wanted to make their decision. There is plenty of time for donors yesterday, today, tomorrow, for the next are we five months, six months away?

Murphy: -- plenty of time to catch Kim Reynolds --

Sand: It's just a question of writing checks. Now people who write checks they want to make what they think are -- there are very few people out there who write big enough checks or enough checks that they feel like they can sway something and so they are trying to have an impact and a way that they think moves things in a positive direction --

Henderson: And I have to move this thing to closure. We are out of time. Thank you for joining us today.

Sand: Every time it's so fast. Sorry.

Henderson: Exactly. Thanks for watching this edition of Iowa Press. Join us at our regular broadcast times, 7:30 on Friday nights and Sundays at noon. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.

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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. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.