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ISU stonewalls, Leath plays the victim ahead of airplane use audit

Any day now, the internal auditor for the Iowa Board of Regents may complete his review of all plane trips on Iowa State University’s Flight Service since President Steven Leath came to ISU nearly five years ago.

Although Leath has promised to be “as open and transparent as possible” regarding his airplane use, ISU officials have steadfastly refused to clarify certain details about specific flights or university practices. Reporters probing facts not found on the “frequently asked questions” page keep getting the same runaround: ISU cannot comment, so as not to “jeopardize the integrity of the audit.”

ISU has also slow-walked some information requests related to the airplane controversy. Ten days since the university’s Public Records Office received my payment for one set of records, I’m still waiting for documents that were supposed to take only 3.5 hours to compile. The delay will prevent me from reporting on a potentially newsworthy angle before Todd Stewart sends his findings to the Board of Regents. Depending on when the material arrives, how long it takes to review it, and whether ISU answers follow-up questions promptly, I may not be able to publish before board members convene a special meeting to discuss the internal audit.

Leath complained last week about supposedly “vicious personal attacks” in media coverage of the airplane controversy. It’s not the first time he has claimed to endure “unfair” treatment by writers supposedly engaged in “distortions” and asking “inappropriate” questions.

In reality, “planegate” reporting has addressed Leath’s conduct and use of university resources, not his personal qualities.

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Branstad going to China: Let the IA-Gov speculation commence

Jennifer Jacobs reported for Bloomberg last night that Governor Terry Branstad has accepted President-elect Donald Trump’s offer to become the next U.S. ambassador to China. Jacobs cited three unnamed sources, and an unnamed member of Trump’s transition team confirmed the news to the Washington Post this morning. I expect Trump to make the official announcement during his Thursday “thank you” rally in downtown Des Moines. (By the way, many central Iowa Democrats as well as Republicans received a robocall invitation to that rally, featuring Donald Trump, Jr.)

I wish Branstad well in his new adventure. He’ll have a lot to contend with: the president-elect’s recent overture to Taiwan was destabilizing; Trump’s threats to punish China for supposedly unfair trade and currency practices could spark a trade war; and horrific air pollution has made Beijing “almost uninhabitable.”

Kim Reynolds is the fifth woman to hold the office of Iowa lieutenant governor and will soon become the first woman governor in our state’s history. Branstad has been saying for years he wanted her to succeed him, and many Democrats expected him to step down before the end of his sixth term, to give her the advantages of incumbency going into the 2018 campaign. The domain KimReynoldsforgovernor.com has been registered since 2012, Mark Langgin pointed out today.

Reynolds will select the next lieutenant governor, and she may use that power to neutralize a potential rival, such as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. (Why Northey would agree to that arrangement is a mystery to me.) I don’t expect Reynolds to clear the field for the 2018 Republican primary, but as governor, she will be able to raise more money and possibly deter some ambitious people. Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett has been laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial campaign for years. I don’t know how many major donors would back him now that Reynolds will be the incumbent, though. Running a credible campaign against her would require millions of dollars.

Many Democrats were delighted to read this morning that Representative Steve King told The Hill’s Scott Wong he is thinking about running for governor himself. I suspect this will play out like the early months of 2013, when King attracted a lot of attention by saying he might run for U.S. Senate. I never believed then and don’t believe now that King will run for higher office. However, two recent developments may have changed the equation for him.

First, Iowa’s sharp turn to the right this November may have convinced King he has a chance to win a statewide election, which didn’t appear to be the case a few years ago. Second, he and Branstad are not on good terms. King was a leading surrogate for presidential candidate Ted Cruz, whom Branstad attacked shortly before the Iowa caucuses. Reynolds and many other prominent Iowa Republicans endorsed King before this year’s GOP primary in the fourth Congressional district, but Branstad didn’t join them. Adding to the insult, soon after King defeated State Senator Rick Bertrand in that primary, the governor’s son Eric Branstad hired some of Bertrand’s former staffer to work on Trump’s campaign.

Any thoughts about Branstad’s prospects in China or the 2018 campaign are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: The Des Moines rumor mill sees State Representative Peter Cownie as a likely lieutenant governor choice for Reynolds. Further updates are after the jump.

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Energy centers got their money from the Iowa Utilities Board this year

During the first week of December 2015, an unexpected political scandal went out with a whimper as the Iowa Energy Center and the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research finally received the remittances the Iowa Utilities Board had collected on their behalf from gas and electric utility companies. For many years, the board had transferred those funds without incident, as stipulated by state law. But in her first year as Iowa Utilities Board chair, Geri Huser took the “unusual, perhaps illegal, step of withholding funding […].”

Huser’s power play was aimed at the Iowa Energy Center affiliated with Iowa State University. (Its leaders denied her unsupported claim that they had refused to provide sufficient financial information to the board.) Because funds for both centers are calculated and released at the same time, the unprecedented board action also delayed resources for the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa. Huser backed down a week after Ryan Foley of the Associated Press exposed the controversy to a wider audience.

Having heard nothing about the energy centers’ funding lately, I reached out this week to Iowa Utilities Board communications director Don Tormey. He sent documents showing that in accordance with the usual formula for splitting the remittances, the board disbursed $4,123,150.49 to the Iowa Energy Center and $727,614.79 to the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. The board sent warrants (paper checks) using regular mail, as had happened in 2015 for reasons I still don’t understand. Before last year, the board typically transmitted those funds via wire transfer.

Communications staff at the state universities confirmed that the energy centers received checks in the mail last month for $4,123,150.49 and $727,614.79, respectively. Those totals comprise the remittances from utility companies but not the interest accrued on those funds. John McCarroll of Iowa State University noted, “In the letter with the check, IUB said they will be forward[ing] the interest payment in June 2017 as they close out the fiscal year. This is how they handled the interest in 2016.”

The board has faced criticism on other fronts this year after approving the Dakota Access (Bakken) pipeline and allowing its construction to commence this summer, when Dakota Access did not have all applicable federal permits. Pending lawsuits are challenging the board’s authority to use eminent domain for the pipeline, saying a 2006 Iowa law does not allow a company that isn’t a utility to condemn farmland. It would have been foolish for Huser to stir up more trouble by flexing her muscles at the energy centers’ expense again. Also possibly relevant: former Iowa Energy Center executive director Mark Petri, with whom Huser had tangled, left Ames this summer to take a new job as director of the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Iowa results certified: Clinton carried early vote, Trump crushed election day

The scale of Iowa’s unexpectedly large swing toward Donald Trump has been clear for nearly a month. But until today, we didn’t know how much early and election-day voters contributed to transforming Iowa from a bellwether state to one that voted much more Republican than the rest of the country, from a state the Democratic presidential nominee carried by nearly 6 points in 2012 to a state the Republican nominee won by more than 9 points four years later.

According to numbers released following the official state canvass, Hillary Clinton went into election day with a cushion less than half as large as Barack Obama’s early vote lead in 2012. Meanwhile, Trump’s advantage among election-day voters was more than four times as large as Mitt Romney’s.

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