FILE - In this Oct. 18, 2014, file photo, 1st District congressional Republican candidate Rod Blum speaks during a debate in Waterloo, Iowa. The House Ethics Committee is investigating whether U.S. Rep. Rod Blum violated any rules related to his role in an outside business. A statement Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018, from the committee chair and ranking member says the committee will continue a previously unannounced investigation into the actions of the Iowa Republican. (Matthew Putney/The Courier via AP, File)

House Ethics Committee investigating Iowa Rep. Rod Blum

September 04, 2018 - 3:42 pm

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — The House Ethics Committee is investigating whether U.S. Rep. Rod Blum of Iowa violated any rules related to an unusual business he founded while in office but failed to disclose, its leaders announced Tuesday.

The committee said it would continue a previously undisclosed inquiry into Blum, a Republican who is considered among the most vulnerable incumbents in Congress in November's election. The investigation stems from a February story by The Associated Press about Tin Moon Corp., an internet marketing company founded by Blum and longtime business partner Ed Graham during Blum's first term in office in 2016.

A statement from the committee's Republican chairwoman and Democratic ranking member said the panel intends to announce the outcome by Dec. 17, more than one month after voters decide whether to give Blum a third two-year term representing Iowa's 1st District. Blum, of Dubuque, is facing Democratic state Rep. Abby Finkenauer.

In a statement, Blum blamed his political opponents and the news media for an investigation into what he called a "minor error" for which he has apologized.

"That is why they have waged a crusade of personal destruction on me and other principled leaders working to drain the swamp in Washington — this is the Swamp fighting back," he wrote. "In my case they scream 'ETHICS VIOLATION!' over a clerical error on a form."

Tin Moon promises it can help businesses bury negative information below the first page of internet search results. It has solicited companies who have received warning letters for violations from the Food and Drug Administration, promising: "We WILL remove the derogatory FDA letter from page one so it no longer damages your business and reputation!" The FDA said in May that companies should not use Tin Moon's services, saying they should focus on correcting violations rather than hiding warnings.

Blum failed to disclose his position as a corporate director in his 2016 personal financial disclosure, as required by House ethics rules. He blamed an "administrative oversight," and amended his form to list his role and claim the company as an asset worth $700. In his form covering 2017, filed last month, Blum reported that he had a 70 percent stake, was a director, and that the company is worth between $1,000 and $15,000.

Experts on House rules have told AP that Blum and his chief of staff John Ferland also may have committed other violations.

Since 2016, the company had promoted itself with an online ad in which Ferland falsely posed as a satisfied customer. The ad said that Ferland was a representative of Digital Canal, a software company that Blum also owns.

Ferland has never had any role with Digital Canal and was director of Blum's congressional district office at the time. He has said he recorded the video at the request of Graham, who is president of Digital Canal and the treasurer of Blum's re-election campaign. The company took down that video after AP's story, which noted that House resources can't be used to promote private businesses.

The company also eventually removed any reference to Blum on its website, which had featured an official photo of Blum wearing his congressional pin and referred to him as Tin Moon's CEO.

The Ethics Committee faced a Tuesday deadline to make a statement about the status of the case by law. Its statement said the panel received a referral July 19 from the Office of Congressional Ethics, an independent office that investigates allegations of misconduct against lawmakers and their staff. At least one of Blum's constituents filed a complaint with that office.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said news of the investigation "shatters any ounce of credibility" that Blum had.

"This ethics investigation will haunt him like a dark cloud through Election Day," it said.