As the long and tumultuous Iowa Senate District 15 race came to a close on election night, Nov. 6, 2018, Leesa Parkhill-Nieland believed her husband, Democratic candidate Dan Nieland, had a good chance of winning over Republican opponent Zach Nunn, despite the announcement of her indictment by a federal grand jury for alleged Social Security fraud nearly two months prior.
The couple was so convinced of a Senate District 15 win they moved out of their 50-acre Altoona ranch, Pine Hollow Stables, to find a more secluded and spacious home in rural Newton, a centralized location for their district which is largely made up of Jasper County and eastern Polk County. With the comings and goings of guests at Pine Hollow, the Nielands wanted to live somewhere a little less public. They placed an offer about three weeks before the election.
Now, half a year after Nunn won by nearly 4,000 votes, claiming the seat, and who has recently embarked on a listening tour across all 16 counties in Iowa’s third congressional district, which does not include Jasper County, Parkhill-Nieland was found not guilty of all three counts — Social Security fraud, theft of government funds and making a false statement to the Social Security Administration — by a jury of her peers.
The verdict was reached by May 10. The 14-person jury with two alternates deliberated for almost three hours and unanimously determined Parkhill-Nieland was exonerated of any crimes. Nearly three weeks after the ruling, Parkhill-Nieland said she and her husband are “happy that it’s over” but the impact has yet to set in completely.
“When you’re accused of something like this, you don’t know what your future holds,” Parkhill-Nieland told the Newton Daily News. “I was shocked. I could not believe they thought I was doing something wrong. I was very open and honest. I gave them my taxes, I gave them my information.”
Investigators searched through the Nielands’ phones, computers and tablets. Every text message, every email, every phone call, every Facebook post and every private message from as far back as 2009 was scrutinized. No evidence was found. Parkhill-Nieland refused to take a plea bargain.
“I know me and I have to live with myself, and I could never take advantage a public system like that,” she said.
Both Nieland and Parkhill-Nieland are convinced the accusations and charges had a negative effect on the campaign, as well as their lives.
According to the press release dated Sept. 14, 2018, from the United States Attorneys Office for the Southern District of Iowa, Parkhill-Nieland was alleged to have received Social Security Disability Insurance benefits from about December 2012 to about April 2018 while self-employed through two different businesses: Pine Hollow Stables and Coat of Many Colors.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office alleged she “concealed and failed to disclose that employment from the Social Security Administration in order to continue to receive payments.”
The same day the press release was made public, Parkhill-Nieland appeared in United States District Court and entered a plea of not guilty. On their way back from court, the Nielands claimed the Newton Daily News contacted them for a quote or statement regarding the charges, surprised at the speed in which the press release was posted. Nieland asserted his wife’s innocence.
“It was ready to go the moment she walked out,” Nieland said. “Somebody had something to do with it, but we can’t prove it. And it doesn’t do a heck of a lot of good to dwell on it.”
Nieland met with party members a few days after the indictment was announced, admitting he failed to inform them of the allegations. He had also believed Nunn used federal connections to release the information, but provided no evidence to support the claim, the Newton Daily News reported in a Sept. 18 article.
Charges against Parkhill-Nieland were filed Aug. 28.
At the 2019 trial, the evidence that was presented did not demonstrate a crime was committed. The prosecution introduced about 500 exhibits and 30 witnesses who testified in trial.
In a statement, Parkhill-Nieland’s lawyer, Todd Lantz, said, “A federal jury found Leesa Parkhill-Nieland not guilty of all charges alleged against her. She always believed she was innocent, and she trusted a jury to hear the evidence and make the correct decision. Leesa and Dan Nieland are overjoyed with the result and look forward to moving on with their lives.”
A representative of the United States Attorneys Office for the Southern District of Iowa did not reply to a voicemail and email sent by the Newton Daily News by presstime Thursday.
At the time of the Senate District 15 race, the charges against Parkhill-Nieland was another blow to the Jasper County Democratic Party in 2018, which had scrambled to find a suitable candidate after popular one-term incumbent Chaz Allen announced he was dropping his re-election bid after accepting the party’s nomination.
Before Nieland accepted the nomination, local Democrats nominated Taylor Van De Krol, the former Jasper County Democratic Party Chairperson, to lead the Senate District 15 race. Less than two weeks later, Van De Krol announced he was leaving the race for “personal reasons.” Meanwhile, Republican candidate Tim Shay stepped down to make way for Nunn.
Once word got out Nieland’s wife was facing federal prosecution, a number of Jasper County Democrats were contemptuous the candidate did not disclose the information before they nominated him and donated money to his campaign. Nieland said he did not blame them for feeling that way, noting he would have felt the same if he was in their shoes.
Fighting the case cost the Nielands close to $100,000.
Despite everything that has happened, Parkhill-Nieland said they are not abandoning the Democratic Party and will continue to support their candidates. Although Nieland does want to involve himself more into the community he has settled in, returning to politics is not something he sees happening in the near future.
“It was a high price to pay for putting my name on the ballot,” Nieland said. “The whole focus has just been getting past this court case successfully. Now that it happened not too long ago, we’re just trying to figure out where do we go from here … It’s over. Now we just move forward.”
The two, married for almost 10 years, agreed they would not blame each other or hold any grudges for the election results or the perceived “misunderstandings.” Parkhill-Nieland said the ordeal, as stressful as it was, has made them a stronger couple. Support from family and friends also helped.
However, the experience no doubt changed their lives. Had Nieland not been running for office, she said, the two would not have entertained the idea of moving to Jasper County nor would they have sold their farm.
Parkhill-Nieland said, “We feel we paid the ultimate price to try and help our community.”
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org