IOWA CITY, Iowa — An Iowa State Patrol supervisor received $40,000 in relocation benefits as part of a reassignment to western Iowa last year, even as he began claiming a newly built house 120 miles away as his home for tax purposes, a review by The Associated Press shows.
The patrol is conducting an internal investigation into whether Lt. Joel Ehler, its district manager in Council Bluffs, is in compliance with its residency policy and his moving benefits were handled appropriately. A patrol spokesman, Sgt. Nathan Ludwig, told the AP that it "is aware of the matter and takes very seriously" the concerns that were raised in an anonymous complaint that sparked the investigation.
"We are duty bound to investigate the allegation and all surrounding facts and circumstances," he said. "We will objectively discharge our duties in that regard and will determine whether there is any merit to the complaint."
Ehler had been stationed in Des Moines and living in the central Iowa town of Adel when was assigned in June 2017 to lead the patrol office based in Council Bluffs. He qualified for state-funded relocation benefits.
The Iowa Department of Public Safety's long-standing residency policy requires troopers to live in the county where they are assigned and their supervisors to live within 30 straight-line miles of the city limits of their duty station.
Ehler was required to move within 30 miles of Council Bluffs, which is about 115 miles west of the Adel residence. Property records show he and his wife sold the home one year after his reassignment for $469,500 — or $146,500 more than what they paid eight years earlier. The state approved Ehler's request to be reimbursed $29,000 in closing costs on the June 2018 sale, as allowed under the relocation benefits policy. The payout included a $14,000 commission for an agent with Keller Williams Realty, a brokerage where Ehler's wife is also an agent, records show. The state also granted his claim for $10,000 in income tax assistance for the move.
But instead of moving toward Council Bluffs, Ehler began living the day after the sale in a new home 15 miles to the east in West Des Moines, according to a homestead tax credit application that was signed by Ehler in September 2018 and obtained by AP through an open records request. Property records show that the couple built the home on land they acquired months after Ehler's 2017 reassignment to Council Bluffs, and that it's now assessed at $388,000.
Ehler, who has been with the patrol since 1992, did not return messages seeking comment. His wife declined comment. Ehler's supervisor, Capt. Darin Fratzke, said he could not comment during the investigation, which is being conducted by the department's professional standards bureau.
Ehler has told patrol officials that since September 2017 he has been living in a rental home in Avoca near Council Bluffs and is therefore in compliance with the residency policy, which is designed to ensure that patrol managers and officers can quickly respond to public safety emergencies and natural disasters.
But it's unclear whether the rental would put Ehler in compliance. Under the policy, residences are defined as the places that employees declare as their permanent homes, such as the addresses they list on their tax returns, driver's licenses and mail correspondence.
To qualify for the homestead tax break, individuals must attest that they own a property and will occupy it for at least six months each year, according to the Iowa Department of Revenue. "I further state that I began ... to occupy this homestead on the above date," Ehler attested of the West Des Moines home, listing a date of June 27, 2018.
An anonymous complaint, signed by a "concerned trooper" and obtained by the AP, alleges that Ehler is not in compliance with the residency policy for multiple reasons, including that he does not stay in Avoca on the weekends. The complaint alleges the relocation benefits appear to be a misuse of funds.
Violating the residency policy can lead to termination.
Records show that in 2016, the Department of Public Safety fired a gaming agent who was accused of living too far away from the casino in Larchwood where he was based in northwestern Iowa. The agent told the department after his promotion that he moved his primary address to within the 30-mile boundary. But an internal investigation later found he was actually still living outside the area, while parking his state car at a rental property owned by a college roommate.
The department has previously been criticized for allowing relocation benefits that did not comply with state policies. A state audit released in 2011 identified six department employees who received more than $122,000 in benefits to relocate less than 25 miles without prior approval, including two who moved less than 4 miles.
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Ryan J. Foley, The Associated Press