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Iowa Republican faces investigation over ethics mess

Republican Rep. Rob Blum of Iowa already faced long re-election odds. His ethics mess makes matters quite a bit worse.
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. 

Last week, Roll Call published its list of the most vulnerable U.S. House members in this year's midterm elections. Listed at #1 -- the incumbent lawmaker most likely to lose in November -- was Republican Rep. Rob Blum of Iowa.

Reports like this one from the Des Moines Register probably won't help the congressman's chances.

A U.S. House ethics committee on Tuesday announced it's investigating U.S. Rep. Rod Blum, the incumbent Republican in Iowa's first congressional district, following news reports earlier this year that he failed to disclose his private business on a required form.The Committee on Ethics for the U.S. House of Representatives said that its top leaders had decided to "extend" a "matter" about Blum.

It's worth emphasizing that the Ethics Committee didn't go into any detail about which "matter" it's investigating, but Blum himself issued a statement on the developments, explaining that the scrutiny is over a "clerical error" about a company he failed to disclose his role in.

At first blush, that may sound like a fairly dull controversy. The truth is far more interesting.

Part of what makes the controversy amazing is the nature of the company in question and its work. The Associated Press reported back in February that Blum was one of two directors who led the Tin Moon Corp., incorporated in May 2016, more than a year into the Iowa Republican's first term in Congress.

As the AP reported, Tin Moon Corp. offered to "help companies cited for federal food and drug safety violations bury their Food and Drug Administration warning letters below positive internet search results."

That's not a great business model for anyone, least of all a sitting member of Congress. But in this case, it gets a little worse.

As we discussed when the story first broke, Blum's business not only offered to help those accused of violating FDA standards, the Iowan was also featured on the company's website in a photo featuring his congressional members' pin. He was, of course, required to disclose his role in the business, but didn't.

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 effectively accused of perpetrating a fraud -- not only against the public, but even against his own company’s customers.