GOP fundraiser linked to place where accused killer of Mollie Tibbetts lived

Cristhian Bahena Rivera is escorted into the Poweshiek County Courthouse for his initial court appearance, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018, in Montezuma, Iowa.

Says she never met Cristhian Rivera.

Posted: Aug 24, 2018 4:10 PM
Updated: Aug 24, 2018 4:29 PM

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A top Republican fundraiser whose firm works for several prominent immigration hardliners is the partial owner of the land where the Mexican man accused of killing Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts lived rent-free, a farm spokeswoman said Friday.

Nicole Schlinger has long been a key fundraiser and campaign contractor for GOP politicians in Iowa and beyond, including this cycle for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Virginia Senate candidate Corey Stewart.

Schlinger is the president of Campaign Headquarters, a call center that makes fundraising calls, identifies supporters and helps turn out voters for conservative candidates and groups. Her business is one of the largest in Brooklyn, the central Iowa town where Tibbetts disappeared while out for a run on July 18.

Schlinger is married to Eric Lang, the president of the family-owned dairy that has acknowledged providing employment and housing for the last four years to Cristhian Bahena Rivera, the man charged with murder in Tibbetts' death.

The couple — along with her husband's brother Craig Lang and his wife — own farmland outside Brooklyn that includes trailers where some of the dairy's employees live for free as a benefit of their employment, farm spokeswoman Eileen Wixted confirmed.

She said Rivera lived there for the duration of his employment, and about half of the farm's other 10 workers do so as well. Under the arrangement, the farming company pays the couples to rent the land but workers do not have to pay, she said.

In an email Friday, Schlinger said that she was "shocked and deeply saddened" by Tibbetts' death and had never met Rivera. "The perpetrator should be punished to the fullest extent of the law, and when he meets his maker, suffer the consequences he deserves," she wrote.

She said that she was gifted an ownership interest in the land many years ago from her husband's family and that she has no role in the farming operation.

Still, the fact that one of its own operatives has indirect ties to the case could complicate GOP efforts to highlight the gruesome slaying in its political messaging ahead of the November mid-term election. Dairy co-owner Craig Lang also was a Republican candidate for Iowa agriculture secretary, finishing third in a five-way race in the June primary.

Republicans such as President Donald Trump and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds called for stricter immigration laws and enforcement almost immediately after Rivera, who is suspected of being in the country illegally, was charged Tuesday. Some have blamed Democratic policies for the slaying, even though studies have disputed the notion that those in the country illegally are more likely to commit violent crime.

"Every victim below would be alive today if we enforced our immigration laws," U.S. Rep. Steve King of Iowa tweeted Friday, above a picture of Tibbetts and other victims. "Leftists sacrificed thousands, including their own, on the altar of Political Correctness."

Schlinger's business calls itself "the best conservative call center in America." Her biography claims she is the most prolific fundraiser in Iowa GOP history, having brought in more than $50 million for politicians and causes. She has said her business has made millions of phone calls for candidates seeking offices ranging from president to city council since its founding in 1999. Her firm's client list includes several politicians who routinely call for stricter immigration enforcement.

Federal Election Commission records show that Cruz's re-election campaign has paid CampaignHQ nearly $1.7 million since the beginning of 2017. A Cruz campaign spokeswoman didn't immediately return an email seeking comment.

Stewart, who has made stepping up deportations of immigrants in the country illegally a major campaign theme, has also employed the firm, along with the campaigns of Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina. The now-defunct Stop Sanctuary Cities PAC paid the firm $3,449 for its services in March.

In an interview Friday, Stewart said he had no problem with Schlinger's property ties to the suspect, saying her firm does a "great job" raising money.

"I hire people for their ability to do the work for my campaign," he said. "Whatever she does in her personal life is her business."

After Rivera was charged, Reynolds denounced an immigration system that "allowed a predator like this to live in our community." CampaignHQ was a top vendor for the campaigns of former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who selected Reynolds as his running mate in 2010, and has also done some work directly for Reynolds' campaigns, state records show.

Investigators say that Rivera came to the country from Mexico illegally several years ago when he was in the late teens. He is accused of stalking Tibbetts while she was out for a run a few miles from his home, killing her after she threatened to call police on him, and dumping her body in a cornfield. Preliminary autopsy results show that Tibbetts died from multiple "sharp force injuries."

Schlinger and her husband have managed to largely avoid the intense media spotlight that has followed the case. They did not speak at a press conference Wednesday when farm manager Dane Lang said Rivera presented an out-of-state identification and Social Security number with a different name when he was hired in 2014. Dane Lang said he was shocked to learn to that Rivera's allegedly not in the country legally.

But others around town, including Rivera's defense lawyer, question whether the family had to have had suspicions, if not known, about Rivera's immigration status.

"They are taking a blind eye to what's going on," said defense lawyer Allan Richards. "At some point a reasonable person would have been more diligent in determining whether or not these folks are legal."

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