Matt McCoy is a state senator from Iowa’s 21st District.
On the morning of April 7, 2006, two FBI agents knocked on my door. They informed me that I was being investigated about issues related to bribery and violation of the Hobbs Act. As I tried to recall what the Hobbs Act entailed (robbery and extortion, mostly), they prolonged their visit by pressing “play” on a tape recorder. I was shocked to hear a conversation I had conducted with my business colleague, Tom Vasquez.
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That conversation detailed a dispute we had, regarding my consulting with Vasquez about a business that sold monitoring systems for senior citizens in Iowa. The federal government believed that in my demanding payment for those services, and threatening to strike out on my own as a competitor, I had made what amounted to a threat to use the power of my office against him.
The FBI claimed this threat was extortion by an elected Iowa state senator. I explained how I had filed the required Senate financial disclosure forms, and that, as citizen legislators who work in the capital for less than one-third of the year, we have to have other employment, hence this dispute. They disagreed, arguing that my comments amounted to an attempt to coerce Vasquez. The Des Moines Register reported during my eventual trial that numerous Iowa officials had “denied threats by McCoy, and insisted that no single senator would have the power to influence purchasing decisions” by the state.
However, not satisfied with snaring just me in their net, the agents went on to say that if I gave them the names of other elected officials engaged in illegal activities, the district court might be inclined to look favorably on me. The district office was led by a prosecutor named Matt Whitaker, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa. Whitaker, an avowed conservative who has run for state office multiple times as a Republican, was part of what would come to be widely considered a politically motivated effort by the Department of Justice to investigate Democratic officeholders.
At the time, David Yepsen of the Register wrote: “It appears the U.S. attorney, Matt Whitaker, is aggressively going after the city’s south-side Democratic organization and the way it does business.” You could call it due diligence, and, to be clear, the investigation and secret recording of my conversations was done in a fully legal manner. But if you consider Whitaker’s naked partisanship, as Yepsen did, and the fact that a study at the time showed that the Ashcroft and Gonzales Departments of Justice prosecuted Democrats to an extent grossly disproportionate to Republicans, you could refer to it as something very different. In Whitaker’s own recent words: a “witch hunt.”
The FBI agents who visited me that day were saying that if I snitched on my Senate colleagues, Whitaker’s office might be lenient with me. This is all standard practice for the Department of Justice, of course, and similar to the tactics that special counsel Robert Mueller, who Whitaker has repeatedly criticized, has used in his ongoing investigation—but ignoring the fact that I had no knowledge of what I was supposed to have done illegally, let alone knowledge of illegal actions on the part of others, I would never have played that game.
This was the first I knew I was under federal scrutiny. The FBI paid Vasquez to record 12 hours of our conversations. They turned over the tapes to the grand jury. The jury returned a one-count indictment against me for attempted extortion under the Hobbs Act, which more specifically is a federal anti-racketeering law used in cases involving public corruption. It sets a low bar for conviction of public officials. The charge stemmed from the threat to form my own company. The FBI admitted to paying at least $2,200 to Vasquez for clandestinely taping our conversations. If I were convicted, it could have meant a $250,000 fine and 20 years imprisonment.
Whitaker’s entire case was built on the word of Vasquez, the star witness, whose credibility was undermined by a litany of personal issues he acknowledged under oath. In cross-examination, Vasquez had amnesia. “I can’t recall,” “I don’t remember” was his response to over 100 questions.
That the FBI paid Vasquez for his testimony was unheard of. The former editor of the Des Moines Register’s editorial page, Gilbert Cranberg, stated, “The local criminal defense bar was stunned that the government had to pay the alleged victim for his help prosecuting his purported victimizer,” in an editorial for the Nieman Watchdog. In a local news journal, he wrote: “Was McCoy’s prosecution a product of poor judgment, inexperience, misplaced zeal or partisan politicking? Perhaps some or all of the above.”
I was eventually acquitted after the jury deliberated for less than 25 minutes, according to the foreman. Cranberg noted in the Register, “The case against McCoy was so anorexic that not one of the 12 jurors considered it worth protracted consideration.” One of my attorneys, Montgomery Brown, stated, “Ninety percent of federal court cases result in a conviction, and the swift ‘not guilty’ verdict indicates something was seriously wrong with Whitaker’s case.”
U.S. attorneys conveniently “forgot” that they approved to pay Vasquez to covertly tape his conversations with me, a revelation that came out in the wind-up to my trial. There were no consequences for this. In denying our motion to dismiss the case, the court said this was an unfortunate “lapse of memory.” Had I had such a lapse, I would have been cuffed and hauled off to prison.
According to my attorney, Jerry Crawford, during the trial he walked over to the prosecuting attorneys and asked them to save face, saying, “Pull this case now. I’m embarrassed for the United States of America.” Both of the attorneys he spoke to, one of whom had been flown in from Washington, D.C., by the DOJ, said they were instructed to carry out the case to its fullest extent. Somebody in Washington—or in Whitaker’s office—was making this call, and the trial prosecutors didn’t have control over it. They knew they were out-lawyered, and they were getting slaughtered daily in court. But they couldn’t bring it to a close, which would have saved them both money and time.
Whitaker’s office clearly wanted to give the evangelical right within the Republican Party a trophy, and that trophy was me—one of the state’s most prominent young Democrats at the time. Whitaker is a social conservative who supported the Iowa Christian Alliance, the pre-eminent group in the state for like-minded conservatives. In 2014, he was executive director of the Foundation for Accountability and Civil Trust (FACT), a conservative watchdog, which Slate described as a “Dark Money-Funded Clinton Antagonist … [which] largely publicized what it described as ethical lapses by prominent Democrats and requested that government agencies and law enforcement investigate them.”
People should be very concerned with Whitaker’s elevation to acting attorney general. The DOJ is supposed to be blind to politics. Whitaker clearly is not.
At the time, I did not realize the full implications of what was happening to me, which had echoes in national politics. The U.S. attorney general at the time, Alberto Gonzales, was involved in a scandal in which he was accused of firing eight U.S. prosecutors, who were all previously in good standing with the DOJ, for political reasons. The aforementioned study from the time suggests the DOJ was attacking the Democratic Party at its grass roots. Their insinuations of corruption sapped local Democrats of energy and created suspicion among their constituents.
At the time, the national Democratic Party had named me among the 100 up-and-coming Democratic leaders to watch. I was young. I was liberal. I was popular. I had never been defeated. I had flirted with running for Congress. And I was openly gay, which surely didn’t increase my popularity with social conservatives like Whitaker. Steve Deace, the conservative talk radio host, hosted Whitaker on his show in 2007 and referred to me derogatorily as “openly homo.” Whitaker said nothing, aside from protesting in favor of his impartiality. He said to Deace that he was “personally offended” by such accusations of partisanship, and that he “[didn’t] have time to direct investigations that I’m not specifically working on myself.”
Whitaker has attempted to establish his own career in Iowa politics. He lost a run for state treasurer in 2002, lost a Republican primary bid for the U.S. Senate in 2014, and was not selected for a seat on the Iowa Supreme Court despite angling for the job. It’s hard to believe he could carry out the important job of United States attorney general with a sense of fealty to the law and to the Constitution, rather than to the Republican Party.
The government’s invasion of my privacy during the case Whitaker’s office brought against me was hardly unusual for such an investigation, but considering my innocence and exculpation it was appalling: I was followed, my conversations were recorded, and my financial records were seized. Family members, co-workers, legislative colleagues and acquaintances were questioned. My emails were read. The emails and financial records of a business colleague were subpoenaed. My reputation and future were damaged. The emotional stress took its toll on my physical and mental health. I lost both actual and potential income, along with my savings. When the DOJ wields its power in a partisan manner, it ruins lives. Whitaker almost ruined mine.
I left in debt, and with and a shattered sense of security. Whitaker left noting his “complete confidence in the jury system.”
Hopefully that confidence endures to this day, regardless of what such a jury might have to say about his new benefactor.