Only four senators voted to hold Geri Huser accountable

Disappointing but not surprising: the Iowa Senate on April 10 confirmed Geri Huser as chair of the Iowa Utilities Board by 44 votes to four. Senators delayed consideration of Huser’s nomination in late March, after Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press that she “has maintained a busy and profitable private legal practice” during her first two years as board chair.

Iowa Code 474.8 stipulates that each utilities board member “shall devote the member’s whole time to the duties of the office.” For decades, every other attorney appointed to that board halted his or her legal practice during the term of service. For some reason, Huser decided those standards need not apply to her. She has also given out conflicting information about her work for the Skinner Law Office. Although she has claimed not to receive any income from that firm, she appears to work out of their office, as Bleeding Heartland discussed near the end of this post.

Only four senators–Democrats Tony Bisignano, Kevin Kinney, Bob Dvorsky, and Herman Quirmbach–found Huser’s outside legal work concerning enough to oppose giving her two more years of greater administrative responsibility and higher pay as the board chair. Most Iowa Senate confirmations are unanimous, so four votes against Huser indicates unusually strong discomfort with her conduct.

On the other hand, the 44 senators who supported Huser on Monday sent a clear message to Iowans. If state law on devoting one’s “full time” to public service gets in the way of a earning a side income, sometimes during regular business hours, powerful and well-connected officials don’t need to follow that rule.

Huser’s ongoing legal practice isn’t her only unprecedented behavior as Iowa Utilities Board chair. Less than six months into her term, she withheld funding for energy centers affiliated with state universities. That inappropriate exercise of her authority was disruptive to the centers and possibly illegal. At the time, a former lawmaker who helped create the energy centers described Huser’s interference as “way out of line.”

Democratic State Senator Joe Bolkcom works at the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa, which got caught up in Huser’s power play, even though the Iowa Energy Center at Iowa State University was her primary target. I am seeking comment from Bolkcom on his vote to confirm Huser and will update this post as needed.

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Energy centers got their money from the Iowa Utilities Board this year

During the first week of December 2015, an unexpected political scandal went out with a whimper as the Iowa Energy Center and the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research finally received the remittances the Iowa Utilities Board had collected on their behalf from gas and electric utility companies. For many years, the board had transferred those funds without incident, as stipulated by state law. But in her first year as Iowa Utilities Board chair, Geri Huser took the “unusual, perhaps illegal, step of withholding funding […].”

Huser’s power play was aimed at the Iowa Energy Center affiliated with Iowa State University. (Its leaders denied her unsupported claim that they had refused to provide sufficient financial information to the board.) Because funds for both centers are calculated and released at the same time, the unprecedented board action also delayed resources for the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa. Huser backed down a week after Ryan Foley of the Associated Press exposed the controversy to a wider audience.

Having heard nothing about the energy centers’ funding lately, I reached out this week to Iowa Utilities Board communications director Don Tormey. He sent documents showing that in accordance with the usual formula for splitting the remittances, the board disbursed $4,123,150.49 to the Iowa Energy Center and $727,614.79 to the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. The board sent warrants (paper checks) using regular mail, as had happened in 2015 for reasons I still don’t understand. Before last year, the board typically transmitted those funds via wire transfer.

Communications staff at the state universities confirmed that the energy centers received checks in the mail last month for $4,123,150.49 and $727,614.79, respectively. Those totals comprise the remittances from utility companies but not the interest accrued on those funds. John McCarroll of Iowa State University noted, “In the letter with the check, IUB said they will be forward[ing] the interest payment in June 2017 as they close out the fiscal year. This is how they handled the interest in 2016.”

The board has faced criticism on other fronts this year after approving the Dakota Access (Bakken) pipeline and allowing its construction to commence this summer, when Dakota Access did not have all applicable federal permits. Pending lawsuits are challenging the board’s authority to use eminent domain for the pipeline, saying a 2006 Iowa law does not allow a company that isn’t a utility to condemn farmland. It would have been foolish for Huser to stir up more trouble by flexing her muscles at the energy centers’ expense again. Also possibly relevant: former Iowa Energy Center executive director Mark Petri, with whom Huser had tangled, left Ames this summer to take a new job as director of the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Market forces may kill Bakken pipeline despite likely Iowa Utilities Board approval

Pipes intended for use in the Dakota Access pipeline being stored in Jasper County, Iowa during 2015. Photo provided by Wallace Taylor, used with permission.

UPDATE: As expected, the board voted unanimously to approve the permit. Scroll to the end of this post for more details and reaction.

The Iowa Utilities Board will meet this afternoon to issue a decision on the proposed Dakota Access pipeline. Everyone I know in the environmental community expects the three board members to approve the permit for this project, better known as the Bakken pipeline. Litigation is sure to follow, as opponents charge the Iowa Utilities Board’s eminent domain powers may be used only in the service of a “public good,” not “to privilege a private corporation.”

Other legal hurdles include the need for a permit from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, because the pipeline route would cross “four areas in Iowa that have been identified as sovereign lands.” The Sierra Club Iowa chapter has been pushing for a thorough Environmental Impact Study and archaeological review. (Too many Iowa politicians from both parties signed a letter to the utilities board opposing an independent environmental impact assessment.)

Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson has long cast doubt on the “bloated” economic impact numbers Dakota Access has used to market the project. Click here for Swenson’s detailed analysis on the pipeline’s “purported economic and fiscal benefits to the state of Iowa.”

A growing number of observers believe the project no longer makes economic sense even for Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company of Dakota Access.

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