This story was produced by IowaWatch.org, the independent, non-profit news organization of The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism.
A federal judge in Iowa tops the list of judges traveling to judicial seminars funded by politically active nonprofits and corporations, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity revealed.
Charles R. Wolle, of the Southern District of Iowa, attended nine of these seminars from July 2008 through 2012, tying him with Chief Judge Thomas B. Bennett of the Northern District of Alabama Bankruptcy Court as the most traveled judge in the nation, according to reports filed online by the judges and analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity.
These seminars, which are intended to improve a judges understanding and interpretation of the law, frequently are sponsored by corporations but also politically active conservatives. Top sponsors included the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, The Searle Freedom Trust, ExxonMobil Corp., Shell Oil Co., Pfizer Inc. and State Farm Insurance Cos. According to the Center, each funded 54 seminars.
Some critics say the corporations are funding these seminars in order to influence the outcome of cases in which they, or companies like them, are involved. For example, sponsors for a 2009 conference in Chicago that Wolle attended called The Pharmaceutical Industry: Economics, Regulation, and Legal Issues included Dow Chemical Co. and Pfizer Inc.
Wolle, who has been considered a senior status judge since October 2001 because he is partially retired, was nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. He did not return a call for comment from IowaWatch or a request to comment from the Center for Public Integrity.
An analysis by IowaWatch indicates that all six Iowa judges who attended an educational seminar attended a seminar sponsored by the top corporations and foundations sponsors.
In addition to Wolle’s nine conferences, those judges include Chief Magistrate Judge Thomas J. Shields of the Southern District of Iowa, with four corporate-sponsored seminars and one seminar that was not sponsored by the most prominent sponsors in the reports; District Judge John A. Jarvey, also of the Southern District of Iowa, with three seminars; Bankruptcy Judge William L. Edmonds, who has retired from active service in the Northern District of Iowa, with two seminars; and District Judge Robert W. Pratt of the Southern District and Magistrate Judge Paul A. Zoss, of the Northern District, with one seminar each.
Polk County is located in the Southern District.
According to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Dow Chemical Co., AT&T Inc., and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also were listed as top sponsors. Each of these sponsors funded seminars that Iowa judges attended.
But corporate sponsors are only one piece of the puzzle, as more than 800 sponsors, nationally, were listed in the records as individuals, which means they paid some of conference costs.
Some judges are listed as sponsors of conferences they attended, which could mean they covered at least some of the costs to attend. Of Iowa’s six judges, Edmonds, Wolle, and Zoss are listed as contributors to some of the seminars they attended.
Determining how much money each sponsor contributed to each seminar is difficult because sponsors are not required to report it. However, the Center for Public Integrity found that many of these corporate and conservative sponsors pay for expenses a judge could incur upon traveling to the seminars, including meals, airfare and hotel costs.
Chris Young, Reity O’Brien and Andrea Fuller with the Center for Public Integrity contributed to this report.