Brent Rastetter target of ethics complaint

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement members filed an ethics complaint yesterday against Brent Rastetter, one of Governor Terry Branstad’s appointees to the state Environmental Protection Commission.

Brent Rastetter is the owner and CEO of Quality Ag Construction, a company he and his better-known brother Bruce Rastetter created in 1992. Quality Ag Construction’s market niche has been building hog confinement facilities. Bruce Rastetter was Branstad’s top campaign donor in 2010 and now serves on the state Board of Regents. He was also an early financial backer of the 501(c)4 American Future Fund, which had many close connections to the Branstad campaign. Brent Rastetter chipped in at least $30,000 to Branstad’s gubernatorial effort and became one of the governor’s four appointees to the Environmental Protection Commission.  That nine-member body is part of the Department of Natural Resources, charged with providing “policy oversight over Iowa’s environmental protection efforts.”

Rastetter wasn’t present for the EPC’s August 16 meeting, but members of the non-profit Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement were there to demand his resignation from either the commission or from Quality Ag Construction. Iowa CCI has advocated stronger limits on factory farm pollution for many years. An ethics complaint prepared by the group charged that Rastetter’s dual role is illegal:

Iowa Code 68B.2A, “Prohibited outside employment and activities – conflicts of interest” states:

Any person who serves or is employed by the state or a political subdivision of the state shall not engage in…outside employment or an activity that is subject to the official control, inspection, review, audit, or enforcement authority of the person, during the performance of the person’s duties of office or employment.

After the EPC meeting, Iowa CCI members submitted their complaint to Megan Tooker, executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. This pdf file contains the full text of the ethics complaint and supporting documents. The conflict of interest charge boils down to three points.

First, Iowa CCI asserts that Quality Ag Construction’s “business practices are directly affected by the environmental rules and regulations under the EPC’s jurisdiction.”

Air and water quality rules considered by the EPC are all but certain to impact the facilities Rastetter’s firm has built in the past and will build in the future. […] He has already voted to scrap a rulemaking package to bring Iowa’s factory farm industry into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act–a vote that put his personal financial interests as the owner of Quality Ag, Inc. ahead of the interests of everyday Iowans and the environment.

In general, I see Rastetter’s day job representing a conflict of interest with his work on the EPC. He may reasonably view any regulation of CAFOs as affecting his current and potential customers’ profits. I don’t know whether there is legal precedent for forcing commissioners to resign under article 68B.2A of the Iowa Code.

I suspect that the the specific vote cited in this complaint won’t convince members of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. Mike Wiser reported here on the EPC’s June meeting:

At issue was a permitting requirement that mandated operators of confined animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs, obtain a Department of Natural Resources permit before they could discharge animal waste.

The state was expected to adopt the federal regulations – which were approved in 2008 – but those federal regulations were overturned in a federal appellate court in March. So the commission decided it would wait until the new federal rules came out before they voted, which is what the vote accomplished. […]

DNR Attorney Randy Clark said state law requires that the department’s rules cannot be stricter than federal regulations. He said when the Environmental Protection Agency comes up with new permitting rules, the committee will consider adopting them then.

In the meantime, he said, current state rules don’t allow for confinement operations to have any discharge. “The operators have to have filters in place to prevent that,” he said. “So that’s how it remains.”

Viewed from that perspective, the June 21 EPC action doesn’t look like a rejection of federal regulations on principle and doesn’t appear to weaken current Iowa rules on CAFO discharges. There’s no smoking gun that proves the EPC action advanced Rastetter’s “personal financial interests.”

The second point in the ethics complaint notes that Rastetter gave Branstad’s campaign more than $30,000, while Branstad promised to loosen regulations on factory farms.

After the election, Branstad appointed big-moneyed political donors and others with documented ties to the corporate factory farm industry to key positions inside his administration, including not only Brent Rastetter, but also Roger Lande (DNR Director), Bruce Rastetter (Board of Regents), and Chuck Gipp (Deputy DNR Director).

The DNR and the EPC are the only government institutions with mechanisms that allow everyday Iowans personally affected by factory farm pollution to weigh-in and have a voice in the public oversight process. However, Branstad’s appointment of Brent Rastetter to the EPC–in conjuction with his other nominations listed above–undermines Iowans’ trust in government and Iowa CCI members consider it a deliberate attack on the democratic process itself.

This point doesn’t belong in an ethics complaint against Brent Rastetter. Governors appoint high-dollar donors to state boards and commissions every year. The practice reflects poorly on our political system, but it doesn’t violate Iowa Code.

I agree with Iowa CCI that Branstad set out to stack the EPC with advocates for agribusiness. Not only that, he sought to move Iowa’s water quality programs to the agriculture department. His DNR Director Lande imposed staff cuts that will hurt water monitoring efforts. Gipp’s new job with the DNR concerns me too. But none of that creates legal grounds for demanding Rastetter’s resignation.

The third point in the ethics complaint relates to comments Rastetter made during the Iowa Senate confirmation process:

At one point during the [confirmation] interview [with members of the Iowa Senate], Rastetter called government regulations “stupid” and said he preferred voluntary compliance to public oversight and regulation, according to Iowa CCI members present during the interview. […]

It is reasonable to assume Rastetter’s comments were based on his ideological opposition to strong and effective public oversight over the corporate factory farm industry, loyalty to the Farm Bureau’s advocacy of voluntary compliance […] and his own self-interest in preventing existing and new environmental regulations from impacting the bottom-line of Quality Ag, Inc., his factory farm construction company.

Unfortunately, Iowa law does not require the governor to appoint people who support environmental protection to the Environmental Protection Commission. State senators had a chance to review Rastetter’s fitness for the position, including his potential conflicts of interest. Only one state senator voted against confirming him to the EPC.

According to an Iowa CCI press release of August 16, Tooker promised to review the complaint before making her recommendation to the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. Bleeding Heartland will follow up when the board has determined whether Rastetter’s corporate holdings constitute “prohibited outside employment.”

Final note: during the June EPC meeting, Iowa CCI members also alleged that Branstad appointee Dolores Mertz had a conflict of interest, due to her family’s factory farm operations. I am seeking comment on whether Iowa CCI plans to file a formal ethics complaint against Mertz. In 2009, the group filed an ethics complaint seeking her removal as chair of the Iowa House Agriculture Committee because of her family’s business operations. The Iowa House Ethics Committee dismissed that complaint. Mertz retired from the state legislature in 2010.

UPDATE: Iowa CCI is not currently planning to file an ethics complaint against Mertz.

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