Weekend open thread: Brazen acts

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

After the jump I’ve enclosed clips describing some brazen behavior. Many Iowans think of corruption in public procurement as a problem for other people, like our neighbors in Illinois. But a former Iowa Department of Public Safety employee’s involvement in state contracts awarded to Smith & Wesson raises red flags. I was surprised to learn on Friday that no ethics case will be pursued regarding the possible conflict of interest.

Todd Dorman’s latest column for the Cedar Rapids Gazette highlights comments by “America’s Longest Serving Ironist” (Governor Terry Branstad) about Syrian refugees possibly being resettled in Iowa. Dorman noted that “The master of blindside edicts” now wants “transparency” from the federal government.

His piece reminded me of Branstad’s hypocritical (or non-self-aware, if we’re being charitable) remarks to Clare McCarthy for her feature about refugees for IowaWatch.org. Speaking to McCarthy on July 7, the governor described how refugees from Burma need mentors from within their community to help them adjust to life in Iowa–perhaps forgetting that only days before, he had vetoed funding for a pilot program to train “leaders from the refugee community to help other refugees work through challenges.”

When it comes to political leaders shamelessly doing whatever they want, then failing to take responsibility, Branstad’s got nothing on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. desmoinesdem directed my attention to a classic anecdote about Putin pocketing a Superbowl ring belonging to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Karen Dawisha related the story in her 2014 book Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? Scroll to the end of this post to read the tale.

UPDATE: A reader commented that former State Representative Renee Schulte also committed a brazen act by shifting gears in a matter of days from being a contractor for the Iowa Department of Human Services to a consultant for a company bidding on contracts to manage Medicaid.

SECOND UPDATE: Not Iowa-specific, but certainly brazen in an “evil genius” way: a “a start-up run by a former hedge fund manager” bought the rights to a life-saving drug last month and “immediately raised the price to $750 a tablet from $13.50, bringing the annual cost of treatment for some patients to hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Andrew Pollack reported for the New York Times.  

Ryan Foley broke the news about a former state employee playing both sides on a contract to supply guns in this July 31 report:

An Iowa Department of Public Safety employee who helped draft a proposal to buy handguns for officers tipped off Smith & Wesson about the timing of the bidding process and was exploring a job with the gun company at the same time, emails obtained by The Associated Press show.

The employee, Ken Paradise, went to work as a regional sales representative for Smith & Wesson months later, shortly after leaving state employment in 2013. The company landed two contracts to supply state law enforcement officers with handguns, and Paradise soon became his old department’s contact person for the handgun supplies, training and repairs, records show. […]

Emails obtained under the open records law shed light on Paradise’s ties to Smith & Wesson, which caused one purchasing proposal to be abandoned because of his potential conflict of interest and may violate the state’s revolving-door law. […]

Paradise retired from the department Oct. 31, 2013. Within weeks, he switched sides. By early 2014, Paradise was helping equip DPS officers with guns and parts as a regional sales representative for Smith & Wesson based in Johnston. After the state abandoned the initial RFP [request for proposals] because of Paradise’s conflict, Smith & Wesson landed two contracts to supply officers with handguns later that year. […]

Iowa law prohibits retiring state employees from getting paid to work for two years for companies “in relation to any case, proceeding, or application with respect to which the person was directly concerned and personally participated.” The law, which carries a misdemeanor offense for violators, could potentially apply to Paradise.

Foley followed up with this AP report on September 18:

Megan Tooker, executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, said she doesn’t believe former Iowa Department of Public Safety supply employee Ken Paradise technically violated Iowa conflict of interest laws. She said she decided it’s unnecessary to bring the matter to the board’s attention, in part because of actions the public safety department took after learning about his potential conflict. […]

Iowa law prohibits departing state employees from getting paid for two years to work for companies “in relation to any case, proceeding, or application with respect to which the person was directly concerned and personally participated.” The law, which can lead to a misdemeanor offense against violators, doesn’t apply to Paradise because the department pulled the proposal that he helped draft and rewrote it, Tooker said. Therefore, he hadn’t “personally participated” in any matters that could have benefited Smith & Wesson, she said.

“The fact that he goes and works for a contractor that bids on something he had nothing to do with doesn’t violate” the statute, she said. […]

Another law requires employees to disclose any conflict related to “outside employment or activity” and avoid taking any official actions that would further those interests. Tooker said the law isn’t clear on whether inquiring about employment with a vendor by itself would violate the law, and Paradise’s precise discussions with Smith & Wesson aren’t known.

The department declined to interview Paradise since he is no longer one of its employees and it is worried about the possibility of litigation with Smith & Wesson over the abandoned gun contract, Tooker said.

This non-attorney is scratching her head. How can seeking employment opportunities with a company that plans to bid on a lucrative state contract not be considered a potential conflict of interest related to “outside employment or activity”?

If Paradise was never interviewed and no one knows the details of his discussions with Smith & Wesson before he left the Department of Public Safety, shouldn’t the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board do some fact-finding before concluding that Paradise did not violate conflict of interest laws?

I also wonder how extensively that RFP was rewritten after Paradise took the job with Smith & Wesson. If its substance barely changed, how can Tooker say Paradise had “nothing to do with” a bidding process he helped shape from inside state government?

From Todd Dorman’s September 18 column for the Cedar Rapids Gazette:

AMERICA’S LONGEST SERVING IRONIST – Gov. Terry Branstad was asked this week about the possibility of Iowa taking in refugees from the war-ravaged hell-on-earth also known as Syria. The optimal answer would have been “Of course, the suffering is heart-wrenching, their plight is dire and all Iowans stand ready to help, as is our proud tradition.”

Instead, the governor pre-complained about how the dumb old Obama administration will probably mess the whole thing up. […]

The governor would appreciate a friendly heads up:

“I hope that they’re going to be a little more open and transparent and work with us on these things,” Branstad told reporters Wednesday, after returning to Iowa from a trade mission to South Korea and Japan.

“When we had this situation previously, they were very secretive and refused to give information” to his office or officials within the Iowa Department of Human Services, Branstad said. “Many governors, including myself, were very disappointed. We think the federal government ought to be working with us and not doing these things in a clandestine way.”

So, let me wipe up the coffee I just spit and get this straight. The governor who closed the juvenile home at Toledo, mental health facilities in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant, decided to privatize the $4.2 billion Medicaid program and vetoed bipartisan legislative agreements on education spending, all without a friendly heads up to Iowans affected, without so much as a one-finger farmer wave to the folks who elected him, is now demanding a rush order of open-faced forthcoming. The master of blindside edicts wants transparency. Remarkable.

From Clare McCarthy’s August 5 piece for IowaWatch.org, the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism: “Response To Refugees In Iowa Has Changed In 40 Years.” (By the way, I would never have guessed that this excellent piece was the first published article by a summer intern from Cornell College. I hope she pursues a career in journalism.) Branstad gave an interview to IowaWatch on July 7.

Branstad said Iowa has limited resources for helping the Burmese refugees. The federal government cuts mean Iowa needs to turn to partnerships with local churches and volunteer social service agencies, Branstad said in an IowaWatch interview last month.

“Can we partner with the faith community and … other people we can partner with?” Branstad said. “What I think we need to look at is a partnership, and I think the state can partner with some of the groups like the religious community as well as some of the nonprofits to do this.” […]

Branstad recently vetoed legislation that would grant funding for a small start-up refugee aid program in Polk County. Branstad told reporters after the veto the proposal was too specific for one part of Iowa and that a statewide solution is needed. […]

“At the federal level, we need to look at the whole immigrant issue and how it is being dealt with and why the changes have been made and if there are changes that can be made in that program serving refugees so that we can better serve their needs,” Branstad said. […]

Branstad said the refugees need mentors who can help them adapt to Iowa. “If they have a relative or even maybe it’s not a relative, just somebody from a local faith group that can act as a mentor, that can make all the difference in the world. That can help them make the adjustment and be successful,” he said.

But Governor, that’s exactly what the pilot program you vetoed would have done.

State Senator Janet Petersen and State Representative Marti Anderson described the pilot program in their June 26 guest opinion piece for the Des Moines Register.

Several bills meant to shore up official assistance to refugees died in the Iowa Legislature this year, including measures to provide more interpreters for legal proceedings and more funds for English-language instruction.

The Legislature did approve $100,000 for our proposal for “community navigators.” This pilot program would train leaders from the refugee community to help other refugees work through challenges and help them take advantage of crucial assistance programs such as housing, medical care and benefits. (We urge Gov. Terry Branstad to follow in the tradition of Governor Ray by approving this modest appropriation.)

Experience shows that hard-working refugees make good citizens when they have quality, sufficient assistance. Iowa has a shortage of workers, especially with our aging population. Part of the solution has been to welcome refugees from Southeast Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. When refugees receive significant help for a couple years, they become strong members of our communities.

The government “safety net” for refugees is tattered in this time of high need.

Branstad item-vetoed about 30 provisions of the 2016 health and human services budget on July 2.

From a footnote on pages 49 and 50 of Karen Dawisha’s 2014 book Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?:

Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, recounted at an after-dinner speech at a public ceremony in the Waldorf-Astoria in 2013 that in 2005, while on a business trip to Russia with a group of top executives, Kraft had shown Putin his Super Bowl rung, encrusted with over four carats of diamonds, a fact confirmed by many pictures taken at the time: “I took out the ring and showed it to [Putin], and he put it on and he goes, ‘I can kill someone with this ring.’ I put my hand out and he put it in his pocket, and three KGB guys got around him and walked out.” Kraft made it known he wanted the ring back, but he claims that he got a call from the George W. Bush White House saying, “It would really be in the best interests of U.S.-Soviet [sic] relations if you meant to give the ring as a present.” So Kraft released a statement saying he decided to gift the ring to Putin. But by 2013 he had changed his mind, and in response to this new story, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin would not return the ring but would be happy to buy Mr. Kraft another one and advised that anyone who believes the story should “talk with psychoanalysts.”

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