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Group says Iowa lawmaker too close to hog industry

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP)--A citizen's group filed an ethics complaint Feb. 24 against a northern Iowa legislator who heads the House Agriculture Committee, claiming she was unfairly influenced by her close ties to the hog industry.

The complaint by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement contends that Ottosen Rep. Dolores Mertz's sons own a 4,000-head confinement hog operation in southern Kossuth County. The group said that connection has left Mertz unable to fairly oversee the Agriculture Committee.

"The claims that we are making are documented," Hugh Espey, executive director of the citizens group, said at a Statehouse news conference. "This is not conjecture. This is not taken off the top of our heads."

The group filed its complaint with the House Ethics Committee.

Mertz attended a budget committee meeting Feb. 24 but left the Statehouse soon after the group held its news conference. A telephone call left at her office wasn't immediately returned.

However, House Speaker Pat Murphy, D-Dubuque, issued a statement supporting Mertz.

"As an Iowa farmer who has spent over two decades in the Iowa House, Rep. Mertz has the experience and knowledge to lead the House Agriculture Committee," said Murphy. "She knows the problems faced by Iowa farmers today and understands the agricultural issues facing our state."

Larry Ginter, a member of the group from Rhodes, said the Mertz's sons have owned and operated the operation for at least 10 years and have been cited for five violations in the past five years.

Ginter argued that Mertz, a Democrat, "has a well-documented history of supporting legislation that favors factory farms."

As head of the Agriculture Committee, Mertz is in a position to decide which measures advance and which are stalled, said Barb Kalbach, a group member from Dexter.

Rep. Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, head of the House Ethics Committee, said she had not studied the complaint and declined to comment.

Kalbach said committee heads such as Mertz have a virtually unfettered ability to decide the fate of legislation.

"For all intents and purposes she can decide which bills live and which bills die," said Kalbach.

Among bills sent to die have been measures toughening regulation of confinement hog operations, Kalbach said.

The complaint argued that Mertz supported legislation in 1995 "which opened the door wide for factory farm expansion in Iowa" as well as legislation last year that set aside $23 million to study air quality issues at confinement operations.

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