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April 21st, 2010

Pay to Play – Culver’s Worst Scandal Yet

Culver 5In the last four years, Iowans have grown accustomed to reading about government scandals in the newspaper. They have read about CIETC, IPERS, Atalissa, Glenwood, the Film Office, and the Association of School Boards. Let’s also not forget about other scandals either, such as the federal audit of the Secretary of State’s office under Culver or the $10 million in flood aid that was misspent.

In each instance, the incompetence of government was on display. Sadly, too many government officials lack any respect for the taxpayer whose money they misspent, stole, or squandered.

You wouldn’t know it by reading the headlines in the newspaper, but the scandal that was unearthed just days ago is far more serious than the news media is reporting.

The latest scandal is very serious and involves Governor Culver directly. The Division of Criminal Investigation doesn’t investigate and question the Governor’s staff on a regular basis, which has already happened. In fact, I doubt that this has ever happened before in Iowa’s history.

The investigation centers on the proposed casino for Fort Dodge. DCI is investigating a $25,000 payment made by Peninsula Gaming to three individuals who are working to pass the gambling referendum in Webster County. Each of those individuals went on to make large contributions to Governor Culver’s re-election campaign recently. Peninsula Gaming is the corporation that would run the Webster County casino if it came to fruition.

The three individuals associated with Webster County Gaming (the local advocacy group pushing for the Webster County gaming license) who are alleged to have taken money from Peninsula Gaming and then passed it through to Governor Culver’s campaign are Steve Daniel, James Kesterson, and Merrill Leffler.

Daniel’s, Kesterson’s, and Leffler’s donor histories are eerily similar. All three have made contributions to Republican Stu Iverson, Sen. Mike Gronstal, Mike Blouin’s campaign for governor, and Chet Culver’s campaign. For the most part, all of these individuals are people who would be described as $1000 donors, meaning that is about the largest contribution they have given to any particular candidate in the past.

Having worked in the fundraising business for years, it doesn’t make much sense to ask someone who writes $250 checks to legislative leaders, like all three did to Sen. Mike Gronstal, and $1000 checks to gubernatorial candidates, for an $8000 contributions, but that’s what each of these individuals gave at the end of the year as the push for the Fort Dodge casino intensified.

Daniel, Kesterson, and Leffler each made contributions to Governor Culver’s campaign on November 23rd of last year and then turned right around and made equal contributions to his campaign just weeks later. Daniel made two contributions of $4500 to Culver’s campaign on those dates, while Kesterson and Leffler each made two $4000 contributions on the exact same dates.

It seems a little odd that each of these individuals would increase the size of their political contributions to Culver by 800% and make the contributions on the same exact day. It’s also probably not a coincidence that Governor Culver took the unusual step of lobbying the Racing and Gaming Commission to grant a gaming license for the Fort Dodge casino either.

Jim Larew, Culver’s new Chief of Staff, told the Des Moines Register, “Governor Culver has not made or taken any campaign contribution calls from any party associated with a license application once such a license application was submitted.” But, if everything is on the up and up, why did the Culver campaign donate the $25,000 it had received from Daniel, Kesterson, and Leffler to charity?

If “pay to play” politics sounds familiar, it should. Last year, then-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was indicted for similar actions. Blagojevich was arrested on federal corruption charges. The Justice Department complaint alleges that he conspired to commit several “pay to play” schemes, which included selling President Obama’s U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder. Is there really any difference between selling a seat in the U.S. Senate and selling the rights to build a casino?

While Culver’s latest scandal might not reach the level of Blagojevich, at the core, both are being accused of the same exact thing – using their public positions to leverage campaign contributions.

Another interesting aspect of this story is that Culver’s new campaign manager, Donn Stanley, comes to the Culver campaign from the Attorney General’s office. The Attorney general’s office is involved in the investigation surrounding the contributions. One has to wonder if Staley’s hiring was a strategic move by Culver to help him navigate through the investigation.

While Iowans have grown accustomed to scandals during Chet Culver’s term in office, this one is likely to be the most deadly. Culver made it through the legislative session unscathed, but now he has to deal with yet another scandal. The only difference is that this one is of his own making.

Photo by Dave Davidson

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About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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