Rastetter "blurred the line" between business and Board of Regents

Bruce Rastetter "blurred the line" last year "between his role as investor in AgriSol Energy" and his position on the Iowa Board of Regents, Ryan Foley reported yesterday in a must-read piece for the Associated Press.

UPDATE: Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement posted extensive e-mail correspondence related to Rastetter's involvement in the potential AgriSol Energy/Iowa State University partnership. Details are below.

Rastetter has been one of the largest benefactors of Iowa State University's agricultural programs, giving more than $2.2 million since 2007. AgriSol Energy is one of Rastetter's many business interests, and in 2009, that company started pursuing a partnership with Iowa State on a major land project in Tanzania. Click here or here for background on this controversial "land grab," which threatened to displace some 160,000 refugees from Burundi.

Rastetter is an influential donor and power-broker in Iowa Republican circles. In 2009 he helped coax Terry Branstad out of retirement, and he became the largest donor to Branstad's 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Branstad named Rastetter co-chair of his inaugural committee and appointed him to the prestigious Board of Regents, which oversees Iowa's three state universities. In July 2011, Rastetter became president pro-tem of the nine-member Board of Regents.

Foley's report highlights Rastetter's conflict of interest during the months after he joined the Board of Regents. The whole piece is well worth your time, but here are excerpts:

Board policy says regents must act in the interest of the board, not their own, and be free of any appearance of conflict. The policy says conflicts include a personal business that partners with a university, and should be disclosed and managed appropriately.

Rastetter waited until June 17, 2011 - six weeks after his term started and four months after his appointment - to disclose the conflict, doing so after the project received publicity. He waited until Sept. 13 before recusing himself from discussions related to ISU's involvement, which happened the same day the university dropped plans to seek a multimillion-dollar federal grant with AgriSol. [...]

Rastetter asked David Acker, an assistant dean, on July 20 for a "write up on the division of responsibilities between the university and our commercial side."

"I appreciate the discussion last week and our relationship and look forward to making a difference together," wrote Rastetter, who had just become the board's No. 2 official.

Acker proposed AgriSol guarantee ISU a five-year financial commitment for nonprofit work in Tanzania, which would be limited to lands where refugees weren't present. He said the school couldn't be associated with the for-profit business, but employees and students could work as AgriSol consultants and interns. [...]

The same day, an AgriSol official proposed ISU seek an international food assistance grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support the project. ISU Vice President Warren Madden warned that Rastetter's conflict "should be addressed in the early stages" while the proposal was developed.

In the fall of 2011, Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean Wendy Wintersteen said that university faculty would serve only as informal advisors on the AgriSol project in Tanzania. However, at least two faculty members remained involved, according to this Ames Tribune report by Hannah Furfaro. In February 2012, Wintersteen announced that the university was cutting all ties to the AgriSol project, because "much of our time and energy has been directed at countering misrepresentations about why and how we were involved."

After Foley's report was published yesterday, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement called on Rastetter to resign from the Board of Regents. Excerpt from that statement:

Iowa CCI members say they will consider a formal conflict of interest ethics complaint if Rastetter does not resign.

"This is the perfect example of what happens when Governor Branstad appoints a fox to run the henhouse," said Ross Grooters, a CCI member from Pleasant Hill.  "Iowans shouldn't have to wonder about who he was representing during these discussions - the Board of Regents or AgriSol."

"Even the appearance of a conflict of interest is grounds for a resignation," Grooters said.  "This looks pretty bad.  Rastetter needs to go because it looks like he used his position on the Board of Regents to pursue his own personal financial gain instead of pursuing the public interest and the common good as he was charged to do."

Iowa CCI filed an ethics complaint in 2011 against state Environmental Protection Commission member Brent Rastetter, who is Bruce Rastetter's brother. The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board dismissed that complaint, but Bruce Rastetter's conflict appears to be more blatant. His company clearly stood to profit from collaborating with a university under the Regents' jurisdiction.

I will be interested to see how the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board handles this case, assuming a formal complaint is filed. Adding to the lousy optics for Rastetter, the ethics board's executive director, Megan Tooker, told Foley that she is "looking into why Rastetter's financial disclosure form filed with the board does not list AgriSol."

Speaking of mixing Regents work with business interests, I am seeking information on why the Board of Regents had its lobbyists register against a bill legalizing raw milk sales. Traditionally the board has weighed in on bills affecting higher education, but I see little connection between the Regents' mission and whether Iowans can buy unpasteurized milk directly from farmers. There are even allegations that the Board of Regents pulled strings to have Iowa State University faculty testify against the raw milk bill at legislative hearings. The likely suspect here is Craig Lang, a dairy farmer and longtime head of the Iowa Farm Bureau. He became president of the Board of Regents last summer, four years after Governor Chet Culver appointed him to that board.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement posted hundreds of pages of e-mails regarding AgriSol's project in Tanzania and Rastetter's efforts to secure ISU's participation. The documents are grouped into four pdf files:

Rastetter e-mails 1

Rastetter e-mails 2

Rastetter e-mails 3

Rastetter e-mails 4

Iowa CCI's petition calling on Branstad to fire Rastetter is here.

To my knowledge, Governor Branstad has not yet commented on this controversy. Obviously, he's not going to fire Rastetter under any circumstances. Maybe they'll send out First Lady Chris Branstad to defend the regent's actions, like she defended the governor's appointment of Steve Lukan to run the Office of Drug Control Policy.

LATER UPDATE: Iowa CCI announced on June 18 that its members "will file a formal ethics complaint tomorrow against Iowa Board of Regents Pro-Tem Bruce Rastetter for abusing his position on the regents board to pursue a partnership between Iowa State University and his agribusiness corporation, AgriSol Energy, for a land-grab project in Tanzania.  Investors like Rastetter stood to make millions off the forced displacement of up to 162,000 Burundian refugee farmers."

  • Unreadable...

    As soon as the initials ICCI hits an article anymore it loses credibility.  This radical group and extreme tactics may be loved by a few wackadoos, but are not recognized by mainstream Iowans at this point.

    • how about Ryan Foley, AP reporter?

      whose piece was picked up by many newspapers yesterday? I notice that you conveniently ignored the substance of his well-researched article.

      For a Regent to be negotiating a business deal with ISU is outrageous, especially when that Regent concealed his AgriSol interest on his financial disclosure form.

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