Follow the Money Leads On the Iowa AG

While the press follows on a campaign-cash story

The National Institute on Money in State Politics’s Follow The Money site reports on how campaign donations from the financial sector to Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller have skyrocketed since he took the lead role in the AGs’ foreclosure fraud settlement.

And “skyrocketed” is no hyperbole:

Nearly half of the money Miller raised in 2010—$338,223 of $785,103—was donated after the October 13 announcement that he would be coordinating the 50-state attorneys general investigation…

Out-of-state lawyers and lobbyists gave Miller $261,445 in 2010, which is 88 times more than they gave over the previous decade. Out-of-state donors from the FIRE sector gave Miller $56,150 in 2010, compared to $3,500 in 2006 and $1,000 in 2002…

The Des Moines Register follows the report and quotes Miller saying that the Follow The Money report “is false or misleading from the start to the finish.” But other than noting that he ran unopposed in 2006, he doesn’t have much to back him up. The numbers are what they are, even if he were to face a well bankrolled opponent this time.

It’s worth emphasizing that Miller has been one of the more pro-consumer attorneys general over the last decade, warning about predatory lending and fighting the comptroller of the currency over preempting state regulators from taking action against out-of-control national banks the OCC wouldn’t rein in.

That makes it all the more important to watch whether all this new money has any effect. Miller’s donations from out-of-state lobbyists, lawyers, and financial and real estate interests rose exponentially last year, Follow The Money reports.

In 2010, 63 percent of Miller’s cash came from outside Iowa. That was up from less than 10 percent in his previous runs. Miller says only a couple of donors had a “vested interest” in the foreclosure fraud investigation, but the timing and nature of the donors means it’s worth a closer look, particularly given how different the patterns are from previous cycles.

But there’s another problem here. Beyond the soft corruption of the campaign-finance system that this story emblemizes, it shows how dependent politicians can become on people they’re not supposed to represent.

Democracy and republicanism only works if the represented know that their representatives are, you know, representing them, rather than looking after the interests of rich donors in Manhattan, L.A., or Houston. But we don’t hear much about banning—or at least pressuring politicians to decline—out of state or even out-of-district campaign donations.

Why isn’t it a major problem that a guy elected to represent Iowans got most of his campaign cash from non-Iowans?

And this is something that’s hardly limited to Miller. Rahm Emmanuel, for instance got more than half of his campaign cash from outside Chicago.

Even that’s a pittance to what lots of other politicians get. Open Secrets took a snapshot of out-of-state donations in September during the campaign last year. It found that Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy had gotten 87 percent of his money from outside Vermont. Dennis Kucinich had gotten 98 percent of his money from outside Ohio.

This, along with things like gerrymandering, surely goes a long way toward understanding why politicians are detached from the people they represent.

Applaud Follow The Money for putting together this story, which deserves good play in the press. It’s a story a stronger mainstream press would have gotten itself.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,