State officials banned from working for foreign governments
By Brian P. McGlinchey
In the wake of reporting by 28Pages.org and Associated Press that two Iowa officials worked for Saudi Arabia against a law that enabled 9/11 victims to proceed with a civil suit against the kingdom, the state has enacted legislation barring state officials from working for foreign governments.
Connie Schmett and her husband Kim Schmett are gubernatorial appointees to three state panels. Connie sits on the Health Facilities Council and the Cultural Trust Board of Trustees, and Kim chairs the Employment Appeal Board.
In October 2016, the Schmetts registered with the Department of Justice as agents of the Saudi government, working under the supervision of lobbying firm Qorvis MSLGROUP on a campaign to weaken the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA).
In September 2017, 28Pages.org was first to share the account of Air Force veteran Dustin DeMoss, who said Connie Schmett recruited him to travel to Washington, D.C. to lobby for changes to JASTA without ever disclosing that Saudi Arabia had organized and funded the undertaking.
When contacted for that story, Connie Schmett threatened to sue this writer if the story were published.
Months earlier, via Facebook messaging, she begged DeMoss not to tell others that she was a registered agent of Saudi Arabia, telling him she’d “be in BIG trouble” if he shared it.
Iowa Governor Embarrassed
Despite Schmett’s attempt to thwart exposure of her work for Saudi Arabia, 28Pages.org published the story, and DeMoss’s account achieved a nationwide reach with follow-on reporting by Ryan Foley of the Associated Press.
The AP report created political embarrassment for Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, since the Schmetts were co-chairs of the governor’s Polk County reelection committee and had recently hosted a fundraiser for the campaign.
Reynolds told reporters she disagreed with the Saudi objectives on JASTA, and her campaign announced that the Schmetts would relinquish their campaign roles.
The governor’s drive to distance herself from the Schmetts turned into something of a fiasco when she attempted to cleanse herself of a $100 campaign contribution from the couple.
Seeking a fitting way to offset the Schmetts’ Saudi-funded work against 9/11 victims, the campaign sent a $100 check to the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. Siller was a firefighter who died at the World Trade Center.
However, compounding the governor’s embarrassment, the charity rejected the donation.
John Hodge, the foundation’s chief operating officer, told the New York Daily News, “We’re going to void it out and return it to them. The reason is that the source of funds is from a foreign agent for Saudi Arabia. It’s…galling because apparently they were paid a consulting fee to fight the passage of (JASTA).”
A campaign spokesperson said the donation attempt was “well-intentioned but not well thought out. We completely understand why they don’t want the money. We are going to return it to the (Schmetts).”
Connie Schmett Reprimanded and Fined
Noting that she had no authority to remove the Schmetts from their posts, Reynolds requested that the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board review the couple’s involvement in the Saudi campaign.
The scope of the review was widened by additional discoveries that came to light after the couple was thrust into an unwelcome limelight.
Bleeding Heartland, which blogs about Iowa politics, discovered that Connie Schmett had made more than 20 donations under the name Connie Russell, and also reported that Kim Schmett had failed to disclose political contributions when he registered as a Saudi agent.
Meanwhile, the AP’s Foley noted that Kim Schmett “listed his occupation as ‘consultant’ when he registered as a foreign agent,” failing to disclose his $80,000 position chairing the state’s Employment Appeal Board.
The chair of the ethics board, Megan Tooker, said a review of the tactics used by the Schmetts in their service to the kingdom—to include an examination of DeMoss’s allegations of being deceived by Connie Schmett—would be beyond the panel’s jurisdiction.
While finding the couple broke no laws, the board, in its 21-page report to Governor Reynolds, found that “Kim made one omission and Connie made several omissions on their personal financial disclosure documents.”
The board reprimanded Connie Schmett and ordered her to pay a civil penalty of $250.
Legislature Takes Prompt Action
To fill gaps that allowed the Schmetts to emerge largely unscathed, the Iowa legislature quickly enacted two measures inspired by the scandal.
The first, which takes effect on July 1, prohibits state officials from engaging in “any outside employment or activity that requires the person to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act” (FARA). Applicants for state employment and nominees for positions requiring Iowa senate confirmation will be required to disclose past FARA registrations.
State Positions Retained
Though the Schmetts were compelled to step down from their positions on the Reynolds campaign, they will retain their posts in state government.
Connie Schmett’s $250 penalty, meanwhile, was positively dwarfed by the couple’s haul from the failed Saudi campaign to thwart the 9/11 civil suit: According to a May 2017 filing with the Department of Justice, they received $101,500.
A few months later—and one week after 9/11 families and survivors marked the 16th anniversary of the attacks—Connie Schmett took to Facebook to enthusiastically announce the couple’s purchase of a farm.