Iowa governor appears in PR video for no-bid vendor of COVID-19 testing program

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Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds updates the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak during a news conference, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, in Johnston, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and four aides helped make a marketing video for a Utah company that was awarded no-bid contracts for work on the coronavirus pandemic, a move that has raised allegations of favoritism and improper use of public resources.

Domo Inc.’s video features interviews with Reynolds, state epidemiologist Caitlin Pedati and chief operations officer Paul Trombino portraying their COVID-19 management as a success for Iowa and the software vendor.

The appearances go against long-standing guidance to avoid any hint of preferential treatment in relationships with contractors. The video puts a positive spin on their response to the virus, which has caused more cases and deaths per capita in Iowa than most other states.

State Hygienic Laboratory director Michael Pentella said through a University of Iowa spokesman that he was asked to participate in the video by the governor’s office and was not told how the material would be used. Pentella’s appearance — in which he calls Domo “a great planning tool” — may contradict a university policy limiting product endorsements.

Domo, which helped launch the governor’s signature COVID-19 testing program, features the video and other marketing materials quoting Reynolds in a case study for prospective customers. It asks, “What if data could stop a viral hot spot?”

One lawyer experienced in state government said the video — which includes shots inside the Capitol and other state buildings — was “shameful on several grounds” if not illegal.

“To cut a commercial for a private company is way beyond established norms,” said attorney Gary Dickey, who was general counsel under Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack.

He said it “smacks of cronyism” for the governor to endorse any specific product or company, especially a vendor picked through a non-competitive process.

Reynolds spokesman Pat Garrett said Domo “wanted a testimonial on the success of Test Iowa” and the governor and others agreed to participate. He said Reynolds was proud of the public-private partnership’s delivery of testing supplies, data analytics and contact tracing.

Unlike federal law, Iowa statutes do not ban government employees from using their positions and titles to promote for-profit companies.

Iowa law does bar the use of state property “for any private purpose and for personal gain, to the detriment of the state.” Another law, signed by Reynolds, bans state officials from using taxpayer dollars for self-promotion.

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