- Associated Press - Monday, January 22, 2018

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Iowa Republican governor candidate Ron Corbett is receiving $185,000 in compensation from a conservative think tank that doesn’t disclose its donors and that, according to its treasurer, has “basically suspended” operations.

The organization, Engage Iowa, stopped holding public events, raising money or issuing research papers last June when Corbett launched his primary campaign against Gov. Kim Reynolds. But Corbett told The Associated Press that serving as the organization’s president remains his day job and that he continues to research Iowa education, environment and economic policy in that capacity. He compared himself to candidates who work as lawyers or farmers.

“I shouldn’t be expected to give up my day-time job,” he said. “We haven’t been dormant but I have stopped (soliciting funds and giving speeches) because I didn’t want people to be confused on what hat I was wearing.”

Corbett, 57, is one of three board members of the group. The others are Gordon Epping, who is its treasurer, and John Smith, the influential owner of Cedar Rapids trucking company CRST International, where Corbett used to work as an executive.

Epping said the group “basically suspended” its operations last June but decided to continue to pay Corbett. “It’s our right to do that,” he said.

Some Democrats and Republicans say the arrangement is potentially troubling. They say voters don’t know who is funding Corbett’s compensation, which began in mid-2015 and includes a $150,000 salary and $35,000 in health and retirement benefits annually, according to its most recent tax filing. That is more than the $130,000 he’d earn as governor and about five times what he earned as mayor of Cedar Rapids, a part-time job that he left last month.

After eight years as the popular mayor of Iowa’s second largest city and previously serving as Iowa House Speaker, Corbett is challenging Reynolds in the June 5 primary. Corbett has far less money in his campaign than Reynolds but is a polished speaker and policy wonk. While the clear underdog, some party officials believe he could give Reynolds a serious challenge.

Reynolds’ campaign declined comment about Corbett’s think tank. But one Republican critic called on Engage Iowa to reveal its donors’ names, saying voters should know whether they have ties to Corbett’s campaign or prior dealings as mayor.

Engage Iowa looks and acts like a campaign for governor but masquerades as a tax-deductible nonprofit,” said political consultant Nick Ryan, a Reynolds supporter and himself a pioneer in the world of shadowy political groups.

The top donor to Corbett’s campaign is Dyan Smith, the wife of Engage Iowa’s unpaid vice president John Smith, with a $100,000 donation, according to a disclosure report filed Friday.

Corbett said he has been careful to separate the policy group from his campaign to protect its tax-exempt status, and that’s why he’s suspended fundraising for Engage Iowa and holding public events. He said he expects the group to continue operating as a conservative policy shop regardless of the election’s outcome.

Corbett said Engage Iowa is following IRS rules that do not require the disclosure of donors by groups that don’t engage in political advocacy or lobbying. He founded the group in 2015 and made dozens of speeches promoting ideas for improving public education, addressing the state’s poor water quality, and reforming tax policy. Corbett said the work has had “great impact” on the public agenda, while critics note it also raised his statewide political profile.

Corbett and Epping are the only two paid employees for Engage Iowa.

Engage Iowa told the IRS the process for setting Corbett’s salary didn’t include any independent review or data comparing its compensation to similar groups. Epping said the board set Corbett’s salary at $150,000 because “that’s what he’s worth.”

Engage Iowa’s tax filing, which shows information about its fundraising and spending, was due last May covering calendar year 2016. But the group requested and received an extension to file until Nov. 15. The AP sought a copy for public inspection from Epping, who mailed the document this month as required by IRS rules.

The document shows Engage Iowa raised $1.1 million during its first two years of operation and spent $940,000. After Corbett’s compensation, Engage Iowa’s largest expense has been $120,000 annual payments to G & S Resources, a corporation owned by former Iowa Republican governor candidate and aide Doug Gross and longtime GOP activist Richard Schwarm.

Corbett said the two have long experience in public policy in Iowa, and helped get it formed and shape the research agenda. He said their $10,000 monthly payments stopped last year.


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