Iowa Senate should (but probably won't) hold Geri Huser accountable

State senators will soon decide whether to confirm Geri Huser to another two years as chair of the Iowa Utilities Board.

The vote presents an opportunity to affirm that even the most powerful and well-connected state officials must follow the law.

Don’t count on senators seizing that chance.

Iowa Utilities Board members serve six-year terms, but the top position on that three-member board is subject to Senate confirmation every two years. The chair serves as the chief administrator for the agency regulating investor-owned electric, natural gas, and telecommunications utilities. Because of the extra work and responsibility involved, the chair earns higher pay. Sometimes the chair takes on additional roles with regional or national organizations of utility regulators, but at present, Iowa Utilities Board members Libby Jacobs and Nick Wagner represent our state on boards and committees of groups including the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, the Organization of MISO States, the Mid-America Regulatory Conference, and Eastern Interconnection States’ Planning Council.

Iowa Code 474.8 stipulates that each utilities board member “shall devote the member’s whole time to the duties of the office.” But Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press last week that Huser has maintained a “busy private law practice” since being confirmed to the board in 2015.

Iowa Utilities Board Chairwoman Geri Huser has been involved in 50 cases as an attorney during her two-year tenure, signing scores of filings and occasionally appearing at hearings during normal workhours. Judges have awarded her firm at least $177,000 in fees for her cases during that period. […]

But prior members who were lawyers, such as Sheila Tipton, have left their firms. And Richard Lozier, Branstad’s appointee for a term beginning May 1, said Monday he would withdraw from his law firm if confirmed. […]

Huser, 53, declined an interview request. But board spokesman Don Tormey said she works full-time and that her legal work is allowed. [Governor Terry] Branstad appreciates Huser’s leadership and is aware of her outside employment, spokesman Ben Hammes said.

Tormey said members can engage in outside activities that don’t conflict with board work, noting that past regulators have farmed and driven taxis. He said Huser’s court filings — 500 since joining the board May 1, 2015— are made by assistants and that she handles time off for hearings through “flex scheduling, vacation and unpaid leave.”

I asked Tormey for a list of all Iowa Utilities Board members who have continued to work at other jobs during their terms of service, how many of those people chaired the board, and how many were attorneys. He responded yesterday, “The IUB does not have or maintain a list of Board members who worked another job while serving the Board. It is not information the Board requires in the ordinary course of business. The examples in previous stories were from staff with knowledge of those specific examples.”

The taxi driver served on what was then known as the Iowa State Commerce Commission during the early 1970s. His annual salary was $15,000 (around $90,000 in today’s dollars). Huser earns $128,900 for chairing the board.

Several sources who have closely followed this area of state government confirm that since the body regulating utilities was renamed the IUB in 1986, no attorneys have continued private law practices during their terms of board service. Not only is being an IUB member a full-time job, performing other legal work might create a real or perceived conflict of interest, unlike operating a farm or driving a cab.

In fact, former IUB member Sheila Tipton pointed out in a March 2015 letter to Branstad that she hesitated before agreeing to fill out the remainder of Swati Dandekar’s term on the utilities board, because “taking the appointment required that I give up my 30-year law practice.” She did so on the understanding that she would be reappointed to a full term in early 2015. Instead, Branstad gave the six-year term to Huser, replacing Tipton and demoting then board chair Jacobs. Tipton found it “unfair” that she was not given a chance to address the governor’s concerns about a regulatory decision that displeased MidAmerican Energy, especially since “my law practice is now gone with my clients dispersed to other law firms.”

Huser’s continuing legal work was news to me. But when I checked the board page at the IUB’s website last week, it was hiding in plain sight: “As an attorney Geri practices in real estate, business, municipal law and estate planning. She is also a small business owner in Iowa.” Huser’s 2015 and 2016 personal financial disclosure forms–which describe “each business, occupation, or profession in which you were engaged during the covered year”–list work as an attorney in the Skinner Law Office and as an owner of Ed Skinner PC, a business described as a “law office.” (The late Ed Skinner was Huser’s father.)

Thanks to the Wayback Machine, I learned that Huser’s official bio on the IUB site has changed at least twice. In late 2015–around the time Huser made news through an ill-considered power play, from which she quickly backed down–the IUB website said only this about the chair: “Geri D. Huser was appointed by Governor Terry Branstad on May 1, 2015 for a six year term as board member ending on April 30, 2021. He also appointed her to a two-year term as chair which ends on April 30, 2017.”

Sometime between late January 2016 and early March of that year, information about Huser’s legal work and previous public service was added to the IUB board page:

Geri D. Huser was appointed to the Iowa Utilities Board on May 1, 2015, for a six year term ending on April 30, 2021. Governor Branstad also appointed Geri as Chair where she serves as the administrative head of the Board.

She previously was Director of Iowa Title Guaranty, Iowa’s real estate insurance provider. As an attorney Geri practices in real estate, business, municipal law and estate planning. She is a small business owner and a partner in the Skinner Law Firm in Altoona, IA. She served in the Iowa Legislature and on the Altoona City Council for a combined total of 20 years.

Sometime after mid-February of this year, the text was changed to remove reference to the Skinner Law Firm:

Geri D. Huser was appointed to the Iowa Utilities Board on May 1, 2015, for a six year term ending on April 30, 2021. Governor Branstad also appointed Geri as Chair where she serves as the administrative head of the Board.

She previously was Director of Iowa Title Guaranty, Iowa’s real estate insurance provider. As an attorney Geri practices in real estate, business, municipal law and estate planning. She is also a small business owner in Iowa. She served in the Iowa Legislature and on the Altoona City Council for a combined total of 20 years.

When I asked about the change and whether Huser is a partner in the Skinner Law Firm, Tormey told me yesterday, “That was an error on the website. Chair Huser has not been a partner since 2011 and the update was made to reflect that.” (UPDATE: The bio page was edited after Foley’s story appeared last week.) Asked about the “small business” the bio page mentions, Tormey referred me to Huser’s personal financial disclosure forms. Both the 2015 and 2016 disclosures list Huser as an owner of the law office Ed Skinner, PC, and as an owner/member of farm operations in Polk and Ida counties. The 2016 form also indicates that she is an owner of the property management firm Moxie 9 LLC.

The Altoona Area Chamber of Commerce directory lists Bradley Skinner (named elsewhere as the “principal”) as the primary contact for the Skinner Law Office but lists Huser as one of two alternate contacts. According to Foley, when approval of the Dakota Access (Bakken) pipeline was before the board in 2015, Huser told him “she had no formal tie to Skinner Law Office.” His March 28 report alluded to that controversy.

Attorney Bradley Skinner, her brother, filed an objection [to the pipeline] on behalf of landowners weeks before Huser joined the [utilities] board, on letterhead that listed Huser as a firm attorney. Huser and Skinner said the letterhead was outdated and that Huser no longer worked there, having sold her ownership interest in 2011. “I don’t get any income and am not paid by them,” Huser said, saying her work was done through a separate firm she owns.

Huser declined to recuse, saying it wasn’t a conflict after her brother stopped representing the landowners. She later voted to approve the pipeline. Today, she calls herself a partner in the firm.

The law office Huser owns (Ed Skinner, PC) appears to be a separate legal entity from the Skinner Law Office. But Huser’s disclosure forms list her as an attorney for the Skinner Law Office, which seems inconsistent with telling Foley in 2015, “I don’t get any income and am not paid by them.”

Senators delayed consideration of Huser’s nomination last week, Foley and Linley Sanders reported on March 29.

Sen. Janet Petersen, the [Senate Commerce] committee’s ranking Democrat, said Huser’s appointment was pulled from the calendar because members wanted “time to read the [Associated Press] article and do some due diligence.” […]

Republican Sen. Bill Anderson, the commerce committee chairman, said he spoke with Huser on Wednesday and is still gathering information about her outside employment, which also includes helping run family-owned farming and property management businesses. He said he has spoken with Branstad’s office and Senate leaders and the committee could consider Huser’s appointment as early as next week.

“I want to see if there is a precedent,” he said. “Have others who have served in those capacities, were they able to continue farming or doing whatever their profession was before they took the appointment?”

Senators don’t need to make this into a complicated question. Iowa Code says each utilities board member “shall devote the member’s whole time to the duties of the office.” Farming on the weekend or driving a cab at night isn’t the same as lawyering during regular business hours. Anyway, those other occupations don’t present potential conflicts of interest. It’s not a coincidence that no other attorney in living memory has continued running a private law practice while serving on the IUB.

Huser has four years remaining on her IUB term, whether or not senators confirm her as chair again. But lawmakers could hold her accountable by refusing to let her keep a better title and salary for two more years. Or, they could offer her a choice: promise to give up her private law practice going forward, or acknowledge that she is better suited to continue as a regular IUB member, without the extra management responsibilities. Doing so would send a message that in the future, senators expect the chief administrator of an important state agency to “devote the member’s whole time to the duties of the office,” in accordance with the Iowa Code.

So much for what should happen. The more likely outcome is that after a short delay, senators will give their blessing to Huser.

I can’t recall any Republican senator voting not to confirm a Branstad appointee during the last seven years. With the governor vouching for Huser, the 29 GOP senators are virtually guaranteed to give her another two years as board chair. To gain support from two-thirds of the chamber, Huser would need only five more votes among the 20 Senate Democrats and independent Senator David Johnson. Senators traditionally show a lot of deference to former lawmakers during the confirmation process, and several of the current Senate Democrats served with Huser in the Iowa House before her surprise loss in 2010. In addition, Huser’s late father (a onetime state lawmaker too) was a beloved figure for many Iowa Democrats. Ed Skinner held senior positions in the party and was a major donor for many years, receiving the Iowa Democratic Party’s “outstanding supporter” award in 2013.

If by chance I am wrong, and Huser is perceived to lack the votes for confirmation, Branstad may follow the path he took when Wagner’s appointment to the IUB was in trouble in 2013. He withdrew that nomination before senators voted, then named Wagner to the board on an interim basis one day after the legislature had adjourned. The move allowed Wagner to serve for nearly a full year before his confirmation came up for a vote during the 2014 legislative session.

Depending on how quickly lawmakers agree on a budget for fiscal year 2018, the Iowa Senate may wrap up this year’s work before Huser’s term as IUB chair expires on April 30. If that happens, Branstad could wait until lawmakers go home for the year, then name Huser as board chair on an interim basis, so the Senate can revisit her confirmation in 2018.

In all likelihood, no such maneuvering will be needed after senators accede to Huser’s unprecedented decision to keep collecting big legal fees while running one of Iowa’s most important regulatory bodies.

UPDATE: I doubt Ed Skinner, PC is a separate law office in reality (and not just on paper). Online searches for that firm produce an address in Mitchellville and the phone number (515) 967-3776. Calling that number takes you to the Skinner Law Office in Altoona, where a directory of employees lists “Geri” right after her brother Brad. Listen:

Ed Skinner’s former law office (Skinner, Beattie, & Wilson, PC) has existed since the 1970s. It later became known as Skinner & Beattie, PC and in 2003 was renamed Ed Skinner, PC. Huser became the registered agent for the corporation in 2011. At that time, the address listed was the same as for the Skinner Law Office (160 Adventureland Drive NW, Suite B in Altoona).

As of 2014, official documents show Ed Skinner PC was still registered at the Altoona address. The 2016 biennial report lists Huser as the registered agent, at the 160 Adventureland Drive address. However, lower down that form provides “115 Center Avenue N” (in Mitchellville) as the “address of the principal office of the corporation.”

SECOND UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Tormey told me Huser sought guidance from the IUB’s counsel on continuing her private legal practice after she joined the board in 2015. Even if internal counsel approved her activities, state senators would be on solid ground to demand that the board chair halt her outside legal work and devote her “whole time” to her government job, as did attorneys who preceded her on the IUB.

Maintenance Notice - As of November 14, 2023 we are still seeing issues with replying to comments...Thanks for your patience, this will be restored.