Weekend open thread: Accountability

Senator Chuck Grassley hit a new low last week in running interference for the White House on the Trump/Russia investigation. After leaders of the private research firm Fusion GPS called on Congressional Republicans “to release full transcripts of our firm’s testimony” about the so-called Steele dossier, Grassley and Senator Lindsey Graham wrote to the Department of Justice and the FBI “urging an investigation into Christopher Steele.” Ranking Senate Judiciary Committee Democrat Dianne Feinstein was not consulted about the referral, which she accurately characterized as “another effort to deflect attention from what should be the committee’s top priority: determining whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the election and whether there was subsequent obstruction of justice.”

Here in Iowa, the Department of Human Services recently acknowledged that privatizing Medicaid “will save the state 80 percent less money this fiscal year than originally predicted,” Tony Leys reported for the Des Moines Register. The Branstad/Reynolds administration has claimed since 2015 that shifting care for one-sixth of Iowans to private companies would result in big savings for the state. Officials were never able to show the math underlying those estimates. Staff for Governor Kim Reynolds and the DHS now portray the miscalculation as an honest mistake, which a more “comprehensive methodology” will correct. The governor would have been wiser to pull the plug on this disaster last year.

Forthcoming Bleeding Heartland posts will address those failures in more depth. But now it’s time to hold myself accountable for the 17 Iowa politics predictions I made at the beginning of 2017. Did I improve on my showing of seven right, two half-right, and seven wrong out of my 16 predictions for 2016?

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The 17 Bleeding Heartland posts I worked hardest on in 2017

Since I started writing for this website a decade ago, I’ve never worked harder than I did in 2017. This momentous year in Iowa politics provided an overwhelming amount of source material: new laws affecting hundreds of thousands of people, our first new governor since 2011, and a record number of Democrats seeking federal or statewide offices.

In addition, my focus has shifted toward more topics that require time-consuming research or scrutiny of public records. As I looked over the roughly 420 Bleeding Heartland posts I wrote this year, I realized that dozens of pieces were as labor-intensive as some of those I worked hardest on in 2015 or 2016.

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ISU president seeking greener runways

Iowa State University President Steven Leath resigned today, effective later this spring, in order to lead Auburn University. Impressed by Leath’s land-grant university experience, Auburn’s trustees hired him following a controversial closed search. In a message to ISU supporters, Leath said he and his wife had “expected to retire here.”

However, we now realize our destiny is in Alabama and leading one of the nation’s great Land-grant universities to even greater prominence.

I leave with a promise fulfilled, and that was to leave the university better than I inherited it. I leave with Iowa State achieving record enrollment, retention rates, graduation rates, job placement rates as well as records in fundraising and research funding, and numerous other metrics. I am proud of the many accomplishments that we achieved in economic development and community engagement.

A brief statement from Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter thanked Leath for his service and noted, “ISU has made great strides during his tenure, including achieving record enrollment.”

The terms of Leath’s contract at Auburn have not been finalized, but it’s a safe bet he will be paid substantially more than the $525,000 base salary he has received since the summer of 2015. The previous Auburn president earned $2.5 million a year, mostly in deferred compensation. Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press that Leath “will be forfeiting deferred compensation of $625,000 that would have accrued had he remained [ISU] president in June 2020.”

Leath had several good reasons to jump ship.

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Weekend open thread: A new job for Steven Leath?

Some non-legislative news caught my eye this weekend: Iowa State University President Steven Leath may be leaving Ames soon. Cynthia Williford reported for the Opelika-Auburn News on March 18 that “multiple sources” say Leath is on the short list for Auburn University president. His “experience in agriculture and leadership at a land-grant university could make him an attractive pick,” she noted.

Leath “declined comment then hung up” on Gavin Aronsen of the Iowa Informer. I had a hunch he might look for a job in the South with Bruce Rastetter’s tenure on the Iowa Board of Regents ending soon.

Alluding to the “planegate” scandal, the Des Moines Register and Iowa State Daily stories on the Auburn rumor included the following two sentences: “Leath used the plane for medical appointments in Minnesota, personal flight lessons and trips to his North Carolina home. He’s reimbursed the university for those flights.” I still maintain that Leath did not fully reimburse ISU’s foundation for all of his medical travel.

Iowa State finally gave the Des Moines Register’s Jason Clayworth records including names of passengers who flew with Leath on the university’s King Air. But this story by Erin Jordan for the Cedar Rapids Gazette hints that the university was trying to avoid having the Iowa Public Information Board assess the Register’s complaint.

However, because Clayworth already had many of the unredacted records, ISU eventually decided to give him the full set, [ISU general counsel Michael] Norton said. Because of the resolution, the board did not have to rule on whether the records about potential donors were public information.

“It’s a gray area,” Norton said.

Norton has not responded to my follow-up questions, such as: Will ISU release King Air passenger names to others who request them? Will the university give Clayworth or anyone else names of passengers on future trips, for which the Des Moines Register doesn’t already have unreacted records?

This is an open thread: all topics welcome. Another story that may interest Iowa politics watchers: two months after being sentenced, former State Senator Kent Sorenson began serving his 15-month federal prison sentence this week, Grant Rodgers reported on March 15. Prosecutors had asked for probation, given Sorenson’s cooperation with the investigation into former Ron Paul presidential campaign aides. Rodgers linked to a blog post in which Sorenson wrote, “I have been very open about the mistakes I have made. I truly believe the sentence I received was unjust. The judge was politically motivated, his wife is an activist for the liberal movement and donated to my opponent.” Sorenson’s family are asking for donations to help support his wife and kids.

UPDATE: Clayworth’s report on passengers who flew on ISU’s King Air went online the evening of March 19. I enclose some excerpts below.

Clayworth clarified that the Register “had less than 80 of the 600+ pages [of King Air records]. ISU was told multiple times that we did NOT have all the records.”

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