Ethics board dismisses complaints against Brent Rastetter and Jason Glass

The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board on Thursday dismissed ethics complaints filed against Environmental Protection Commission member Brent Rastetter and Iowa Department of Education Director Jason Glass. Rastetter had been accused of a conflict of interest related to his factory farm construction business. The complaint against Glass focused on an all-expenses-paid trip to Brazil, which he took in September.

Governor Terry Branstad appointed Rastetter to the state Environmental Protection Commission in March, as part of a strategy to stack that commission with friends of industrial agriculture. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement filed the complaint against Rastetter in August, saying his work as head of Quality Ag Construction constitutes “prohibited outside employment and activities” and a “conflict of interest” under Iowa Code. The complaint also cited Rastetter’s large donation to Branstad’s 2010 election campaign, and comments Rastetter made during his Iowa Senate confirmation hearing. This pdf file contains the full text of the ethics complaint and supporting documents.

Bleeding Heartland explained here why the complaint was unlikely to convince members of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. There’s no proof that Rastetter has gained financially from the Environmental Protection Commission’s decisions, nor does state law require that a member of that commission support government regulations on pollution. In addition, it’s standard operating procedure for governors to appoint major campaign donors to state boards and commissions. I agree with Iowa CCI that Rastetter doesn’t belong on the Environmental Protection Commission, but being ill-suited for a job isn’t the same thing as an ethics violation.

The ethics board’s decision was unanimous, Radio Iowa reported:

The ethics board’s executive director and legal counsel is Megan Tooker. “I’m of the opinion that this does not constitute a conflict of interest,” Tooker said. “(Iowa) has numerous boards or commissions that, by statute or practice, encompass individuals who are members of the fields that they regulate or oversee.” […]

“If a matter specific to one of the commissioners were before the commission, then that commissioner, I believe, should recuse him or herself. But, here we’re talking about matters that have general application,” Tooker said.

Iowa CCI denounced the ethics board’s decision “to put factory farm polluters before environmental protections” in this November 10 press release (excerpt):

CCI members say Rastetter’s private role as the owner and president of the multi-million dollar factory farm construction company Quality Ag, Inc, creates a clear conflict of interest with his public duty as an EPC commissioner to stand up for clean air and water and crack down on factory farm polluters.  

Iowa CCI members filed the ethics complaint after Rastetter’s June 21 vote to scrap a Clean Water Act rulemaking package that would have brought Iowa into compliance with federal law after nearly 40 years of noncompliance. The new rule, if passed, would have directly impacted Rastetter’s business.

An official copy of the complaint can be viewed here.

“Brent Rastetter’s service on the EPC is like the fox guarding the chicken coop, and doesn’t pass the common-sense test.” Said CCI member and family farmer Larry Ginter from Rhodes, IA, “The Campaign and Ethics Disclosure Board just gave good government a black eye.”  

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.  

“It is the mission of the EPC and DNR to protect our environment, and we will continue to push EPC commissioners and DNR staff to stand up for clean air and water, and to crack down on factory farm polluters” Said Barb Kalbach, a nurse & 4th generation family farmer from Dexter. “And whether it is rulemaking or cracking down on factory farm polluters, we will be there to make sure that DNR & EPC are taking a tough stand. If they don’t, we will continue to pursue every option available to stand up for the environment and everyday Iowans.”

There have been more than 750 manure spills since 1995, including more than two dozen since Governor Terry Branstad was elected to office last November.  Iowa has more than 572 polluted waterways.  

State government’s inability to deal with major sources of water pollution is an ongoing scandal, but not the kind of scandal that will ever cause heads to roll in Iowa.

The ethics complaint against Department of Education Director Glass focused on Glass’s weeklong trip for the International Education Initiative in Rio de Janeiro. The Council of Chief State School Officers paid expenses for Glass and eleven other state education chiefs, with a grant from the Pearson Foundation covering those costs. James Q. Lynch reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette,

Questions have been raised because the foundation is associated with Pearson, which has contracts with the State of Iowa for about $4.8 million.

Last month Glass unveiled the Branstad administration’s education reform blueprint, which includes an overhaul of standardized tests. The Des Moines Register reported that Pearson “could potentially collect millions if it lands a deal to create a test that aligns with new national Common Core standards.”

Richard Fredericks filed the complaint with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board. He is a retired Rockwell Collins executive and speaks on behalf of Iowalive Network, “a network of volunteer residents and professionals for improving Iowa.” He has taken a strong interest in education policy and described here how he “progressed from strongly admiring Iowa schools to totally distrusting them, because of seeing facts and numbers the schools and media hid and never reported.” Before his retirement, Fredericks “[r]ecruited other employees to join Rockwell-Collins and touted academic performance of the Cedar Rapids school district as one of three compelling reasons for families to move to Cedar Rapids.”

Click here to read excerpts from Fredericks’ complaint against Glass. He focused on Iowa Code Chapter 68B.22, which states that a public employee “shall not, directly or indirectly, accept or receive any gift or series of gifts from a restricted donor.” The code defines a “restricted donor” as follows:

24. “Restricted donor” means a person who is in any of the following categories:

a. Is or is seeking to be a party to any one or any combination of sales, purchases, leases, or contracts to, from, or with the agency in which the donee holds office or is employed.

b. Will personally be, or is the agent of a person who will be, directly and substantially affected financially by the performance or nonperformance of the donee’s official duty in a way that is greater than the effect on the public generally or on a substantial class of persons to which the person belongs as a member of a profession, occupation, industry, or region.

c. Is personally, or is the agent of a person who is, the subject of or party to a matter which is pending before a subunit of a regulatory agency and over which the donee has discretionary authority as part of the donee’s official duties or employment within the regulatory agency subunit.

d. Is a lobbyist or a client of a lobbyist with respect to matters within the donee’s jurisdiction.

Common sense suggests that a foundation connected to a corporation doing millions of dollars in business with state government is a “restricted donor.” However, Mike Wiser reported for the Sioux City Journal that

[Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board Executive Director Megan] Tooker said it is unclear if a foundation should be considered a restricted donor or not and that the commission will likely take up that matter at a later date.

Even if the Pearson Foundation were officially labeled a restricted donor, the ethics board would not have deemed Glass’s trip a violation. Iowa Code Chapter 68B.22 lists many exceptions to the prohibition against accepting gifts from restricted donors. Tooker cited an exception that  “allows government organizations to receive items or services from restricted donors for the purpose of educational conferences, seminars or other meetings.”

To my mind, Fredericks hit the mark when he pointed out in his complaint that the Pearson Foundation doesn’t provide expensive trips “to anyone not doing business” with the Pearson corporation. Glass and the other top state education officials who went to Brazil “will be heavily involved in deciding if Pearson wins the competitive contract to create the test.” If the September conference were truly about education rather than marketing, the foundation would have paid to bring along some people who weren’t in a position to award major contracts to Pearson.

I am seeking further clarification regarding the ethics board’s decision on the Glass complaint and will update this post if Tooker responds to my questions.

Glass told the Des Moines Register in September, “I have a responsibility to be involved in national and international conversations about improving schools. Anytime I can be involved in those conversations and it doesn’t cost the Iowa taxpayer anything, I’m going to take it. I made the call and I would do it again.” He would be wiser to take Todd Dorman’s advice:

Should top state officials go on spendy trips sponsored, even indirectly, by companies that stand to gain mightily from state contracts? Of course not. Glass may strenuously protest, but this is ethics 101.

The “chief learner,” as Glass calls himself, could learn a big lesson by reading the news for, I don’t know, 30 seconds. […]

A guy who will play a critical role selling school reform at the Statehouse just burned precious political capital he’ll need over the next seven months on seven days in South America.

Dorman correctly predicted that the formal ethics complaint against Glass would go nowhere: “Being an elected official in Iowa accused of an ethical lapse is sort of like getting a parking ticket. Except the parking ticket carries a penalty.” Sad, but true.

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