Departing GOP lawmaker may have broken law in connection with Internet company, ethics office says

An independent ethics monitor raised concerns this year that outgoing Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa) may have broken federal law in connection with a search-engine optimization business he co-founded in 2016, a warning unlikely to have an effect before Blum leaves Congress next month.

The nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics said it had “substantial reason to believe” that Blum misused House resources to support his company, Tin Moon; held back information about his financial stake; and allowed the business to engage in an “unfair or deceptive trade practice” to solicit business.

The findings from July were released Monday when the House Ethics Committee announced that it would continue to review the matter. The committee is not expected to conclude its inquiry or render a judgment before Blum leaves office and its jurisdiction in the matter expires Jan. 3.

Blum, who was defeated in November by Democrat Abby Finkenauer, has said the errors were unintentional or the fault of others and accused the OCE of political animus.

“To be frank with you,” Blum wrote to leaders of the Ethics Committee in August, “I feel that the continuance of this matter in such fashion and the extreme OCE overreach is politically motivated as I am a top target of the Democrats.”

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The letter was released Monday with the OCE report. A spokeswoman for Blum did not respond to a request for further comment.

The OCE’s investigation began in March after the Associated Press reported that Blum violated House ethics rules by failing to disclose his ties to Tin Moon, a company that promises to help clients bury unflattering information in their Internet search results.

Tin Moon also used one of Blum’s top staffers in a “false testimonial for its services” that was posted online, the AP reported.

The OCE found that Blum did not include his financial stake in Tin Moon on a 2016 disclosure form and that he probably underestimated his interest in the business on the amended form.

Blum has called the omission a “minor, unintentional oversight” and downplayed his role in the company, describing himself as a “$700 passive investor.”

But the company website identified him as CEO and included his official congressional photo on its website until late February, when the AP published its story, according to the OCE.

A video testimonial that appeared on the site in 2016 featured Blum’s then-district director John Ferland representing himself as a small-business owner and encouraging others to “take a look at Tin Moon,” the OCE found.

Blum has said the use of his official photo and the video testimonial were “done and posted without my knowledge or permission.”

“Those matters were unknown to me,” he wrote to Ethics Committee leaders in August.

“However, as soon as I became aware of them on February 21, 2018, I immediately sought guidance from Committee staff on the same day about the appropriate corrective action to take. I immediately . . . demanded the TMC website be corrected,” he wrote.

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The OCE said Ferland’s video and other testimonials included on Tin Moon’s site might have constituted “deceptive trade practices.”

Blum said he was not involved in the business’s marketing decisions and criticized the OCE for suggesting he might have violated federal law, saying it has “neither the jurisdiction, nor . . . the expertise to level such an allegation.”

Ferland, who now serves as Blum’s chief of staff, did not respond to a request for comment.

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