Nepotism and Iowa politicians back in the news, after Gov. Reynolds gives her father a job

Gov. Kim Reynolds — photo courtesy of the Republican Governors Association

When most adults give an elderly parent a job, it’s usually as a babysitter. Not Gov. Kim Reynolds. This week it was revealed that Reynolds has appointed her 78-year-old father to a state panel that will vet judicial candidates in District 5A to replace retiring Judge Paul Huscher of Waukee.

Charles Strawn will serve on the District 5A commission for six years. It is an unpaid position.

“I was invited to serve on this board and would like to serve in order to repay to society for the great life and benefits I have enjoyed,” Strawn wrote on his application to serve on the commission, which the Associated Press obtained from the governor’s office. Neither Strawn nor the governor’s office explained who invited him, nor did the governor’s office mention Strawn’s relationship with Reynolds when it announced judicial commission appointments. Strawn’s name will just one of 25 on a list of appointees the governor’s office released on Tuesday. It was only in response to questions from the AP that Brenna Smith, the governor’s press secretary, confirmed Strawn is Reynolds’ father.

In appointing a member of her immediate family to a position of authority Reynolds is following the example of her political mentor Terry Branstad. In 2013, then Gov. Branstad appointed his son Marcus to a six-year term on the Natural Resource Commission.

Iowa politicians haven’t always been so casual about appointing family members to official positions. Neal Smith, who represented the state in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1959 to 1995, was responsible for the country’s most famous anti-nepotism law.

Smith was the author of what is commonly known as the Federal Anti-Nepotism Statute, which he included as an amendment in the Postal Revenue and Federal Salary Act of 1967. It states:

A public official may not appoint, employ, promote, advance, or advocate for appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement, in or to a civilian position in the agency in which he is serving or over which he exercises jurisdiction or control any individual who is a relative of the public official. An individual may not be appointed, employed, promoted, or advanced in or to a civilian position in an agency if such appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement has been advocated by a public official, serving in or exercising jurisdiction or control over the agency, who is a relative of the individual.

Before Smith’s statute, there were no laws against federal officials engaging in nepotism. Smith explained his law had been inspired by both the number of small-town postmasters who were putting relatives on the payroll, and by his fellow members of Congress hiring family members to work in their Congressional offices.

“Many of these relatives may do a good job, but the over-all interest of the government is against the practice,” Smith told the AP in 1967. He pointed out that if the relatives were qualified, then they should be able to find jobs without “using a relationship as leverage.”

In 2016, the Iowa Daily Democrat asked the retired congressman if he thought his statute would prevent then President-elect Donald Trump from appointing family members to his administration. “Smith responded, ‘read it and see what you think,’” the Daily Democrat reported.

Smith’s statute was superseded, in part, by a 1978 law that allows a president absolute authority to hire anyone as a member of the White House staff. That law is why Trump was able to appoint this son-in-law and daughter to White House jobs.

Smith, who is now 98 and living in Des Moines, was Iowa’s long-serving congressman. He originally represented Iowa’s 5th district, and following redistricting in 1990s, he represented the 4th district. That western Iowa district is now represented in Congress by Steve King. Last year, the Des Moines Register reported King “employs his son and daughter-in-law as full-time campaign staffers, and has paid them more than $805,000 since 2004.” The Register noted “an arrangement paying close family members year-round for congressional campaign work for more than a decade is unusual.”

Iowa has a state-level anti-nepotism statute, but it only forbids officials from hiring “any person related by consanguinity or affinity, within the third degree” to work in their government office or agency, although the statute does allow for such appointments in certain circumstances.

Since Reynolds’ father won’t be working in her office, the Iowa law doesn’t apply to his appointment.

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