DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — For her first trip across Iowa as governor, Republican Kim Reynolds sought and accepted the free use of a jet owned by a wealthy businessman who is lobbying for state approval to build a lucrative casino.
Reynolds and acting Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg barnstormed the state last Friday, after Reynolds picked the attorney as her top deputy and running mate for the 2018 election. The "Building a Better Iowa" tour included stops in Gregg's hometown of Hawarden and Mason City, Cedar Rapids and Davenport.
In response to inquiries from The Associated Press, the governor's office said the pair, a state trooper and staffers traveled in an airplane owned by businessman Gary Kirke, who donated the use of the plane and services of two pilots as in-kind contributions to Reynolds' newly established gubernatorial campaign.
The arrangement, while apparently allowed under ethics rules, is drawing criticism from Reynolds' opponents, highlighting Kirke's cozy relationship with the administration and raising security questions.
Kirke, a millionaire casino magnate, has given $25,000 to Reynolds' campaigns and $135,000 to her political mentor, former Gov. Terry Branstad. Kirke's business partner, Michael Richards, was elevated last month to president of the Board of Regents, which governs Iowa's three public universities.
Kirke and Richards are chairman and vice chairman of Wild Rose Entertainment, which owns casinos in Emmetsburg, Clinton and Jefferson. The company is in a high-stakes competition against a rival group for a state license to build the first casino in Cedar Rapids, Iowa's second-largest city. The Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission will decide later this year whether to grant a license.
Kirke said Reynolds' staff called to ask if she could use his plane for the tour and, "I was honored to be asked and happy to help."
Reynolds' press secretary Brenna Smith praised Kirke's generosity. The tour was considered official state business, which means taxpayers could have paid for the travel. Conversely, Reynolds could have used her $1 million campaign fund to rent a plane.
Smith said Reynolds won't take a position on a Cedar Rapids casino and will let the commission use its "independent judgment."
The governor's office noted that campaign donations can be used to pay for elected officials' outreach to constituents. Branstad occasionally used planes owned by wealthy supporters such as Bruce Rastetter and Jim Cownie but was normally driven to events by his Iowa State Patrol security detail.
The governor and lieutenant governor traditionally avoid flying together for safety reasons, although Gregg isn't in the line of succession in his acting capacity. It's unclear whether the state inquired into safety and liability issues associated with using Kirke's plane, a 1998 Cessna Citation V Ultra with 11 seats.
The jet made five stops covering hundreds of miles during the tour in which Reynolds and Gregg introduced themselves as ordinary Iowans promising to improve the state.
Critics pounced on Reynolds' campaign gift days after she succeeded Branstad, who resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China.
"The fact that Governor Reynolds jetted around the state on a big donor's plane while he has a pending business contract with her administration ... shows that she has the wrong priorities for our state," Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Derek Eadon said.
The commission rejected a Cedar Rapids casino in 2014, saying the gambling market was already saturated, with casinos in several nearby cities. But the commission has reopened that debate and is considering three applications for a license. Wild Rose is proposing a $40 million casino that Kirke says will create hundreds of jobs and generate $48 million in annual gaming revenues. Kirke told commissioners in February his company has a track record of "integrity, respect and commitment."
While promising to stay out of the Cedar Rapids debate, Reynolds will get to make at least two appointments next year to the five-member commission, which also regulates Kirke's other casinos.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, who is considering whether to challenge Reynolds in the Republican primary for governor, has long pushed for a casino. Corbett called Kirke an "upstanding" person but said Reynolds' plane use could raise questions about favoritism.
"This was probably one where if they had to redo it, they'd probably find another plane," he said.
It's not the first time a free ride on a Kirke-owned plane has caused trouble for a high-ranking government official. In 1991, then-White House chief of staff John Sununu used a jet owned by Kirke's insurance company to attend a Republican Party fundraiser, prompting criticism.