Congress

Missouri’s Hartzler faces ethics complaint after tweet promoting tractor company

U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler
U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler

An attorney with ties to Missouri Democrats has filed an ethics complaint against a Republican congresswoman for a social media post promoting a tractor company.

Rep. Vicky Hartzler, a Missouri Republican and a member of the House Agriculture Committee, posted a photo to her official congressional Twitter account of her visit to a Case IH plant in Wisconsin.

Lindsey Simmons, an attorney from Hallsville, alleged in a complaint to the Office of Congressional Ethics this month that Hartzler’s tweet violated congressional ethics rules because one of Hartzler’s businesses, Heartland Tractor Company, regularly sells and advertises Case IH’s products.

“To have the sole-Missourian on the House Agriculture Committee circulate a photograph of herself sitting in the cab of a Case IH tractor with the caption ‘American-made product that provides cutting edge technology & power so farmers can feed the world!’ is to send the message that such a product is Congressionally endorsed,” Simmons said in the complaint, which was shared with The Star this week after being filed Aug. 2.

Heartland Tractor promoted on its Facebook page a new tractor from Case IH as “the newest member of the family” just a day before Hartzler posted her tweet, according to Simmons’ complaint.

Case IH’s public relations team did not immediately respond to phone calls Friday.

Simmons has previously worked for several high profile Democrats from Missouri, including former Sen. Claire McCaskill, former Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster and former Rep. Ike Skelton, Hartzler’s Democratic predecessor in the 4th Congressional District.

Steve Walsh, Hartzler’s spokesman, attacked Simmons’ background as a former legal fellow for McCaskill and said Hartzler’s office was unaware of the complaint prior to a question from The Star.

“This is a politically motivated complaint from a New York-based, former Claire McCaskill attorney who clearly has partisan issues with the Congresswoman. The committee has not moved forward with any review nor has it even contacted our office. We were notified of this complaint through the media which further demonstrates the political motivation behind the individual who filed this grievance,” Walsh said in a statement.

“As a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee the Congresswoman represents a wide range of agricultural producers and has an interest in related agriculture enterprises that farmers and ranchers utilize to produce the food, fiber, and fuel for our nation,” Walsh said. “The accusation has no basis but instead is another example of political partisanship.”

Simmons is licensed as an attorney in New York, but she clarified in a follow-up email that she lives in Missouri and works remotely. She said her decision to file a complaint was motivated by a loyalty to John Deere tractors rather than politics.

“I live in Hallsville and around here we’re in Deere Country,” Simmons said. “There are dozens of John Deere dealerships in the Fourth District and around Missouri—including the John Deere division headquarters in Springfield, MO. These companies employ thousands of Missourians, many of whom live in Hartzler’s district. They have a right to know why a sitting Congresswoman advertises against their business.”

Hartzler’s financial disclosure form filed with the House states that the congresswoman receives an annual income from the tractor business between $100,000 and $1 million on top of her income from her farm and other businesses. It states that Heartland Tractor Company is valued between $1 million and $5 million.

Simmons said the congresswoman would have been able to avoid any ethical pitfalls if she had instead posted the photo to her personal, campaign or business accounts.

“Of course, if Hartzler had posted her advertisement for Case IH tractors on those other accounts, she would not have reached the 21.7k followers on her Congressional account. Her personal account has 2,310 followers and her campaign account a mere 367,” Simmons said in the complaint.

She called Hartzler’s tweet “flagrant disregard for the well-established doctrine that elected officials are prohibited from using their public office for private gain.”

The Office of Congressional Ethics, the independent entity charged with evaluating misconduct allegations against lawmakers, told Simmons in a standard email response that the office commences a preliminary review of complaints if the office’s board determines there is a reasonable basis for the allegation.

The office does not comment publicly on its investigations into complaints, but it does provide public notice if it refers a matter to the House Committee on Ethics.

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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