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Iowa Republican faces a doozy of an ethics mess

Rep. Rod Blum, R-Iowa, speaks during a town hall meeting, Thursday, May 11, 2017, in Marshalltown, Iowa.
Rep. Rod Blum, R-Iowa, speaks during a town hall meeting, Thursday, May 11, 2017, in Marshalltown, Iowa. 

At first blush, it sounded like a rather mundane controversy. Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa), a top target for Democrats in this year's midterms, reportedly violated House ethics rules by "failing to disclose his role in a company that he formed."

Given the scope of some of the recent political scandals we've seen, Blum's disclosure issue seemed easy to overlook. But the Associated Press had a longer report on the Iowa Republican's "mysterious outfit," which suggests this story is a lot more interesting than first assumed.

Rep. Rod Blum was one of two directors of the Tin Moon Corp. when the internet marketing company was incorporated in May 2016, as the Republican was serving his first term, a business filing shows. Among other services, Tin Moon promises to help companies cited for federal food and drug safety violations bury their Food and Drug Administration warning letters below positive internet search results.Blum said in a statement Wednesday evening that he made an "oversight" in failing to disclose his ties to the company on his personal financial disclosure covering calendar year 2016, which he submitted last August. He said he was amending the form to list his role as director of the company and Tin Moon as an asset, even while he downplayed the significance of the matter.

So, while serving in Congress, Rod Blum helped create a sketchy-looking company intended to help those who are accused of violating FDA standards. The GOP congressman, who was featured on the company's website in a photo featuring his congressional members' pin, was required to disclose his role in the business, but didn't. What's more, as the Associated Press' report noted, the business is based in the same Iowa office as a construction software company Blum also owns.

The congressman called the disclosure failure an "administrative oversight," which isn't exactly a compelling defense.

And while this is probably starting to sound bad, this makes it sound vastly worse.

Late Wednesday, the company also removed an online video testimonial showing "John Ferland representing Digital Canal" and claiming to be a satisfied customer. Ferlan -- who is actually chief of staff in Blum's congressional office and has never worked for Digital Canal -- claimed that Tin Moon is "saving us thousands of dollars every month, keeping our traffic and leads higher," and implored: "From one business owner to another, I suggest you take a look at Tin Moon."

The congressman told the Associated Press that he had no idea why his chief of staff appeared in the testimonial, pretending to be a customer of the company his boss helped create.

Blum also told the AP that the controversial business was "not a functioning company in 2016," which seems hard to believe since his chief of staff's phony endorsement of the company was uploaded in September 2016. (The AP's article added, "[A] YouTube user named 'rodblum' uploaded a similar Tin Moon testimonial two weeks earlier.")

When the Associated Press asked Melanie Sloan, the former executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), about the Iowa congressman's problem, she said, "There is no gray here. He just can't do what he's doing. We were just laughing about it because it's so ridiculous."

It's not every day that a sitting congressman is accused of perpetrating a fraud -- not only against the public, but even against his own company's customers.

Rod Blum, who's been at the center of a variety of unfortunate controversies, represents one of Iowa's most competitive districts. He's also the chairman of a House Small Business Committee -- though under sane circumstances, House Republican leaders would take another look at whether it's a good idea to have someone facing these allegations in such a role.