A GOP proposal to expand the Iowa attorney general’s authority in handling election-misconduct claims could “politicize the office,” according to one Democratic senator.
The proposal, along with one that would give the attorney general the right to prosecute criminal cases without a referral from a county attorney, is contained in a draft bill that has yet to be introduced in the House or the Senate.
Iowa Capital Dispatch has reviewed draft bill language from two independent sources. The proposal appears to be tied to Gov. Kim Reynolds’ effort to reorganize and consolidate state government.
The draft bill provides that the attorney general, rather than county attorneys, will decide whether alleged violations of Iowa’s election misconduct laws are to be criminally prosecuted. Another element of the draft bill eliminates the authority of county attorneys to even investigate allegations of election misconduct within their borders.
Like the attorney general, the state’s county attorneys are elected officials. Just over one-fourth of Iowa’s county attorneys are Democrats. The current attorney general is the newly elected Brenna Bird, a former Guthrie County and Fremont County prosecutor. Like Reynolds, Bird is a Republican.
Sen. Nate Boulton, a Polk County Democrat who sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, says in its present state, the draft bill raises more than one issue for state lawmakers.
“First, I think we have to be a little bit concerned as to just how much this may politicize the office of the attorney general,” Boulton said. “We’re under no illusions here, this is an elective office, but it is an office that’s about doing justice, not doing political work. And when you start to see things like this, changing around enforcement responsibilities, the concern becomes that this elective office becomes very much a political office in terms of deciding how these cases are going to be handled. That is concerning.”
As for the measure that would enable the attorney general to prosecute criminal cases of any kind that are normally handled at the local level, Boulton said such a move could disrupt the cooperative relationship that Iowa’s county attorneys have long enjoyed with the attorney general’s office.
“We want cooperation, we want justice to be done,” he said. “And we want criminal prosecutions in particular to be handled by the people who are best equipped to do it, and not be setting up turf wars on these cases and how they should be handled.”
Currently, Iowa’s attorney general prosecutes local criminal cases only when the county attorney refers the matter to the state for prosecution. Typically, that happens in smaller counties that lack the resources to prosecute major crimes, and in cases where the county attorney has a conflict, which can occur when police officers or deputies are charged with crimes. In fact, the attorney general’s Area Prosecutions Division is set up specifically to handle cases referred there by county attorneys.
The governor’s spokesman, Kollin Crompton, did not respond when asked about the rationale for the proposed changes.
The attorney general’s spokeswoman, Alyssa Brouillet, declined to comment, noting that the bill has yet to be introduced.
Representatives of the Iowa County Attorneys Association and the Iowa State Association of Counties also declined to comment on the proposals.
Boulton said he’s not focused on the GOP’s motives in proposing the changes.
“I’m less concerned about the motives and more concerned about the impact,” he said. “I think that’s what I have to do as the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. I have to look at what this actually can achieve, what it can accomplish, and what the consequences of this change – intended or unintended – would be.”
Bird’s successful 2022 campaign to unseat the nation’s longest serving attorney general, Democrat Tom Miller, was politically charged, with Bird referencing her opposition to the administration of “Joe Biden and the radical socialists.” She promised in television commercials to “give Joe Biden exactly what he deserves.” On her first day in office as attorney general, Bird signed onto lawsuits challenging the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates and student-loan debt relief program.
During the 2022 campaign, Miller and Bird were asked by the Des Moines Register what sort of changes each of them planned to make in the office if they prevailed on Election Day.
Miller outlined his continued support for county attorneys, saying, “We respect the authority of county attorneys and step in when asked to handle serious crimes.”
Bird, who has served as president of the Iowa County Attorneys Association, told the Burlington Hawk Eye she hoped to hire more attorneys in the Area Prosecutions Division so it could better handle the criminal cases referred there.
Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: [email protected]. Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.