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Potential conflicts of interest roil group in charge of Iowa's caucuses

DES MOINES, Iowa – A debate has erupted within the organization responsible for governing much of Iowa’s caucus process over the rules regarding members’ political activities.
 
The by-laws of the Iowa GOP don’t prevent any member of the Republican State Central Committee (SCC) from endorsing, volunteering, or receiving pay from presidential campaigns, setting up complaints of perceived conflicts of interest in members’ decision-making.
 
The 17-member SCC operates on the authority of the Iowa GOP’s constitution, and is tasked with governing most of the primary process – from settling the Ames Straw Poll ballot to determining debate criteria and setting the date of the caucus, which the committee had placed on the calendar for Jan. 3.
 
Seven members of the committee have openly endorsed candidates, and some have taken paid staff positions --  developments that have spurred a rift within the committee and among Republicans statewide.
 
Five SCC members – Drew Ivers, A.J. Spiker, David Fischer, Jeremiah Johnson and James Mills – have endorsed Texas Representative Ron Paul for president. Three of them hold paid positions with the Paul campaign.
 
Member Wes Enos endorsed and works for Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign, while national committeewoman Kim Lehman has endorsed former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum.
 
No other campaigns have public support from SCC members.

Some current and former party officials see a potential conflict of interest.  Former Iowa GOP chairman Steve Grubbs, who is currently serving as Herman Cain’s state chair, is an outspoken opponent of serving the party and a campaign at the same time.
 
“It's always a potential landmine for Central Committee members to endorse candidates during a Republican contest, since they are often called upon to officiate meetings with multiple candidates, or official party functions,” says Grubbs, who adds that he remained neutral when he served as the Iowa GOP chairman.
 
In interviews with NBC News, SCC members say the first sign of a potential conflict during the 2012 cycle bubbled up in July, when SCC members voted on the list of names to appear on the August 13 Ames Straw Poll ballot.
 
At issue was the inclusion of two names – Gov. Rick Perry and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. At the time, speculation swirled about both figures, but neither had declared for president.
 
“All the members that were supporting candidates recused themselves from voting on whether to add Palin and Perry,” National Committeeman Steve Scheffler told NBC News.  He added that the members endorsing Paul and Bachmann handled those abstentions differently.
 
“During the discussion period, only Wes Enos [of the Bachmann campaign] spoke openly about his preference to keep them off, but the Ron Paul people did not even participate in the discussions,” Scheffler said.
 
The vote was tied, and Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn was called in to cast the deciding vote. Perry and Palin’s names were left off the ballot, with the stipulation voters could select them as write-in candidates.

The ballot vote revealed how the endorsing members – in the absence of a hard and fast rule prohibiting a conflict – were torn between competing allegiances.  Despite their abstentions, they may have influenced things all the same.

Ivers was in favor of including Perry and Palin because of how high they were polling, but he didn’t speak out because he didn’t want to be “biasing the process.”

Enos, who did not vote , decided to voice his opinion nonetheless, telling committee-members he objected to including Perry and Palin  on the ballot because they weren’t declared candidates.
 
“You could give your opinion. I gave mine but I made it very clear after I voiced it that it would be inappropriate for me to vote, as it could benefit one candidate over another,” he told NBC News.

Ivers said some members found it odd that Enos had spoken out.
 
(Bachmann ultimately won the Iowa Straw Poll; Ron Paul came in a close second.)

Current and former party officials say only a change in the by-laws can prevent these potential conflicts of interest.
 
“Serving the party should never be seen as a means to enrich oneself as a hired hand for presidential candidates. It cheapens the caucuses and turns the party central committee into a joke,” one former state party official and caucus campaign veteran said.

The endorsing members disagree.
 
“The end point for having a political party and for having the organization is to elect a good candidate,” says Ivers.

The grey areas spill beyond matters of protocol at party meetings.  Financial rules governing SCC members is another thorny issue.
 
Members do not receive a salary but are allowed to be reimbursed by the Republican Party for travel on party duty.  Critics say that distinguishing between party and campaign duty may be easier in theory than practice.
 
“Party donors should not be reimbursing SCC members for travel to and from political events where they are able to wear two hats – one as a party official, and the other as an identified campaign worker,” said the former party official.
 
Enos, who says he never wears his SCC pin to Bachmann events, acknowledges this point. “You have to be very careful to not ever mix the two roles – ever,” he says.

Given the passion on both sides, it doesn’t look like it the issue will be resolved soon. The committee last voted on the issue in June, and determined only that members disclose paid positions with campaigns. The committee holds its next quarterly meeting Saturday.
 
Similar questions have been raised inside the Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee, which also allows members to endorse and work for presidential campaigns.  But the issue is left to simmer among Republicans until the next contested Democratic caucus.
 
Member Trudy Caviness, a Republican member of the SCC, was the co-sponsor of an effort several years ago to amend the state party’s constitution to prohibit working as a paid staffer on a campaign while retaining membership on the SCC.
 
The effort failed, but Caviness still believes in its principles.
 
“We need to further the work that is the best for the Republican Party of Iowa,” Caviness says.  “I am not against someone working for a candidate; they just need to resign as a member of the State Central Committee to do that.”