Tom Steyer Aide Offered Money for Endorsements

DES MOINES, Iowa—A top aide to Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer in Iowa has privately offered campaign contributions to local politicians in exchange for endorsing his White House bid, according to multiple people with direct knowledge of the conversations.

The overtures from Pat Murphy, a former state House speaker who is serving as a top adviser on Steyers Iowa campaign, arent illegal—though payments for endorsements would violate campaign finance laws if not disclosed. Theres no evidence that any Iowans accepted the offer or received contributions from Steyers campaign as compensation for their backing.

But the proposals could revive criticism that the billionaire is trying to buy his way into the White House. Several state lawmakers and political candidates said they were surprised Steyers campaign would think he could buy their support.

Tom Courtney, a former Democratic state senator from southeastern Iowa whos running for reelection to his old seat, told The Associated Press the financial offer “left a bad taste in [his] mouth.”

Democratic presidential candidate businessman Tom Steyer speaks
Democratic presidential candidate businessman Tom Steyer speaks
Democratic presidential candidate businessman Tom Steyer speaks during the Iowa Democratic Partys Liberty and Justice Celebration, in Des Moines, Iowa, on Nov. 1, 2019. (Nati Harnik/AP)

Murphy said concerns about his outreach were the result of a “miscommunication.” Alberto Lammers, Steyers campaign press secretary, said Murphy was not authorized to make the offers and that the campaign leadership outside of Iowa was unaware that he was doing so until the issue was raised by The Associated Press.

Courtney declined to name Murphy as the Steyer aide who made the offer, but several other local politicians said they received similar propositions, and all confirmed the proposal came from Murphy himself. Most requested anonymity to speak freely about the issue. Another, Iowa state Rep. Karin Derry, said Murphy didnt explicitly offer a specific dollar amount, but made it clear Derry would receive financial support if she backed Steyer.

“It was presented more as, he has provided financial support to other downballot candidates whove endorsed him, and could do the same for you,” she said.

Courtney described a similar interaction with Steyers campaign.

“Tom, I know youre running for Senate. Im working for Tom Steyer,” Courtney recalled hearing from the aide. “Now you know how this works. … He said, you help them, and theyll help you.”

“I said, it wouldnt matter if youre talking monetary, theres no amount,” Courtney continued. “I dont do that kind of thing.”

Lammers, Steyers campaign press secretary, said the candidate hasnt made any individual contributions to local officials in Iowa and wont be making any this year. In an email, Lammers said Steyers endorsements “are earned because of Toms campaign message,” and distanced the candidate from Murphy.

“Our campaign policy is clear that we will not engage in this kind of activity, and anyone who does is not speaking for the campaign or does not know our policy,” Lammers said.

In a separate statement, Murphy said that “as a former legislator, I know how tricky the endorsement process can be for folks in Iowa. It was never my intention to make my former colleagues uncomfortable, and I apologize for any miscommunication on my part.”

The overtures do not appear to have made much of a difference for Steyer. Aside from Murphys support, Steyer has received the endorsement of just one Iowan since entering the race in July—former state Rep. Roger Thomas.

Thomas did not respond to phone calls, but in a statement provided by the campaign, he said that he endorsed Steyer “because hes the outsider who can deliver for Iowans on the issues that matter most: getting corporate corruption out of our politics and putting forth a rural agenda that revitalizes communities across Iowa.”

Thomass endorsement was issued in October after the close of the most recent campaign finance reporting period, which ended Sept. 30. The disclosure Steyer filed offers no indication that he directly gave Thomas any money.

Experts say a campaign could violate campaign finance laws if they dont disclose payments for endorsements.

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