IOWA CITY (AP) — As part of his campaign to investigate election fraud, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz has been waging a two-year battle for access to a federal database to help identify noncitizens who voted illegally.
But for all the effort, the Systemic Alien Verification for Entitlements database was not needed to investigate those voters, according to an email obtained this month by the Associated Press under the public records law. The agent leading Iowa's voter fraud investigation told Schultz's aides in August that he already had a “more accurate” way of getting that information through Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Nonetheless, Schultz and state lawyers continue to fight a lawsuit that has blocked his office from using the so-called SAVE database, a Web-based system maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.
“I explained my work with ICE is a more accurate search than what the SAVE database is going to provide them with,” Division of Criminal Investigation agent Matt Anderson wrote to a superior, recounting an Aug. 19 conference call he had with Schultz's legal counsel Charlie Smithson and elections director Sarah Reisetter. “Their reasoning for wanting the names run through SAVE is they fought to get the system and they need to use it.”
Ultimately, Schultz's office has never used the SAVE database because of a lawsuit brought by civil rights groups. A judge has issued an injunction blocking the secretary of state from using it while they challenge rules that would guide the checks and removal of questioned voters.
Schultz applied for SAVE access in April 2012, after his office claimed that more than 1,200 voters and 3,500 who were registered had been issued driver's licenses as foreign nationals. Schultz's office said the SAVE queries would clarify their status, allowing noncitizens who voted to be referred for criminal investigation and removed from the voter list.
Critics argued that SAVE, typically used to determine whether someone is eligible for government benefits or licenses, was riddled with errors and that using it would cause problems. Federal officials conceded that the database had significant limitations when used to verify voters' citizenship and wanted safeguards to prevent misuse.
Schultz accused the Department of Homeland Security of needlessly delaying Iowa's application, criticizing the agency during testimony to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in December 2012. His office received access in August, after negotiating a memorandum governing its use, which he called “a step in the right direction for all Iowans that care about integrity in the election process.”
But Anderson, the agent leading the investigation, suggested in his email days later that the probe would be slowed by using SAVE because Schultz's office was still working out the logistics and because each search can take a day or longer to execute. The ongoing lawsuit has blocked its use, for now.
Several noncitizens are among the 26 people charged with voting illegally during the two-year investigation, which concluded this month. An additional 80 cases have been referred to county prosecutors to decide whether to file charges.
Aides to Schultz defended his decision to continue fighting for access to SAVE, saying it could be needed for future investigations. Schultz, a Republican, is leaving the secretary of state's post after one term to run for Congress.
“Given that the Legislature may or may not continue funding for the DCI voter fraud investigations, it's important and worthwhile that the secretary of state have the SAVE database as a tool to use should we not have access to ICE through DCI,” spokesman Chance McElhaney said.
Had Schultz's office received access to SAVE earlier, “we likely could have significantly narrowed down the information that DCI would have had to review,” he said.
DCI supervisor Adam DeCamp, who has overseen the investigation since September, said the probe wasn't hindered by the lack of SAVE access. He said DCI agents were able to call contacts at ICE “to get the most real-time, up-to-the-moment information” on a suspect's immigration status.
“I don't know what the secretary's intentions are as far as going forward,” he said. “I can just say that for DCI, we obviously have other avenues that we can use.”
Anderson's email surprised American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa attorney Rita Bettis, whose group is backing the lawsuit that has blocked Schultz's use of SAVE. She noted that Schultz and state lawyers are continuing to fight the lawsuit, filing a brief last week insisting that he has the legal authority to use the federal database.
“I just wonder what the point of all this is,” she said.
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