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Iowa arranged COVID-19 tests at office of governor’s donors

January 27, 2021 GMT

JOHNSTON, Iowa (AP) — Gov. Kim Reynolds’ administration arranged coronavirus testing for employees at the suburban office of a large pork company whose owners are her top donors, underscoring allegations that her wealthy supporters have received special treatment.

The Iowa Department of Public Health coordinated the July 13 testing outside the West Des Moines office that houses the administrative headquarters of Iowa Select Farms and its charity, the company confirmed to The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Iowa Select is one of the nation’s largest pork producers, with farms across Iowa. Owners Jeff and Deb Hansen have donated nearly $300,000 to Reynolds’ gubernatorial campaigns, including a $175,000 check in 2017 and a $50,000 gift last fall, disclosure records show.

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The testing occurred at an office used by white-collar employees of the company and the Hansens’ foundation. The governor has worked closely with both in the past.

Company spokeswoman Jen Sorenson said Iowa Select reached out to the governor’s office seeking help after “a number of individuals were found to be potentially exposed to a positive employee.” She said the governor’s office referred the company to the public health department, which determined a rapid-response state team was the appropriate way to provide testing.

“We are grateful to all of Iowa’s public health officials that have provided guidance, testing, and assistance throughout this challenging time,” she said.

Sorenson said 32 employees were tested, but would not say whether the Hansens were among them.

Polk County Supervisor Matt McCoy, a Democrat who has helped guide the pandemic response in Iowa’s largest county, said he has never heard of the state arranging drive-thru testing at a corporate office, noting its focus had been on congregate living facilities and food processing plants.

He said individuals had broader access to testing by July and companies could pay for mass testing, but the Iowa Select effort looked like special treatment for a contributor.

“Iowa Select is definitely a major player in GOP politics and they played a major role in the governor’s campaign,” said McCoy, a former state senator who has often been critical of Reynolds. “When they call, she’s going to take the call. It’s impossible to divorce campaign finance from policy, but this is clearly a case where it demonstrates why certain people receive certain treatment and others don’t.”

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State Auditor Rob Sand launched an investigation Tuesday into the state’s deployment of testing resources, seeking to determine whether political donors have been favored ahead of more vulnerable residents and essential workers.

Reynolds, a Republican, said Wednesday any criticism was unjustified and that the state provided testing resources to more than 60 companies in a bid to keep the nation’s food supply strong.

“If you called and wanted to try to facilitate a way to get your employees tested so that you could ensure them that they were working in a safe environment, that’s what companies were doing,” she said. “We were doing everything we could to help facilitate that and I will make no apologies for doing that.”

She noted that companies were making similar requests for help getting vaccines.

The state has not released a full list of companies that have received testing help, citing a provision in state law that shields the identities of businesses linked to outbreaks of disease.

Liberal journalist Laura Belin reported Sunday that Reynolds fast-tracked testing for employees at a Waverly machine parts manufacturing company partially owned by one of her donors, Bruce Rastetter, in May. Belin’s blog published an email showing the county health department had been told its request for testing at GMT Corp. would likely be denied because only one employee was infected.

Then, records show that Rastetter or someone else at his company, Summit Agricultural Group, which owns GMT, contacted the governor directly. A “strike team” involving members of the Iowa National Guard conducted testing shortly thereafter.

Rastetter, an influential GOP businessman who donated $25,000 to Reynolds’ campaign last month, hasn’t returned emails seeking comment.

A Bremer County administrator complained in an email that the county requested testing for its health workers and nursing home residents and hadn’t heard back from the state in three weeks, “but a multimillion dollar corporation like GMT puts in a request and gets approved in a day.” No GMT employees tested positive that day, Belin reported.

Sand, a Democrat, cited Belin’s reporting in announcing the investigation.

In addition to their donations, both Rastetter and the Hansens have funded some of the governor’s campaign-related flights, disclosure records show.

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Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa.

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This story has been corrected to show that the date of the $50,000 donation was last fall.