Fund Run by Ames Exec Is Main Donor to Defense vs. Water Works Lawsuit

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Joel Brinkmeyer. Photo via LinkedIn

After a request by the Iowa Freedom of Information Council for more information about the private donors to the defense fund that’s helped cover legal costs for Buena Vista, Calhoun, and Sac counties against the Des Moines Water Works’ Raccoon River pollution lawsuit, the counties have revealed their main backer: the Agricultural Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit whose CEO is Ames resident Joel Brinkmeyer.

The Des Moines Register, which joined the IFIC request, reported Friday that the defense fund has paid for about $920,000 of the $1.1 million the suit has currently cost the counties, which previously denied a request to reveal donors.

The Agricultural Legal Defense Fund was established last year by the Des Moines-based Agribusiness Association of Iowa, a nonprofit industry group also headed by Brinkmeyer. According to the Register, the defense fund released the information in anticipation that the counties would otherwise do so anyway. From those documents, the newspaper reported more about how the money’s been spent:

The ag legal defense fund directly paid most of the $636,000 in legal bills from Belin & McCormick of Des Moines and about $240,000 of Crowell & Moring’s nearly $337,000 in legal bills, based on billing and payment records.

The ag fund also contributed $45,000 to a local legal defense fund of nearly $200,000. It has been used to pay nearly $80,000 in local attorneys’ fees.

An agreement between the ag fund, the counties and Crowell & Moring indicates that the fund could be on the hook for the nearly $100,000 remaining on the Washington firm’s bill, unless the fund runs out of money.

The counties also have identified nearly $40,000 in legal bills from Belin that have not been paid.

According to the Register, Brinkmeyer “has repeatedly declined to name donors to the fund, saying it’s not required to as a private nonprofit group.” However, the Iowa Corn Growers Association and Iowa Soybean Association have said they gave $200,000 and $20,000, respectively, to the fund, and the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation has also given an unspecified amount to it. An attorney representing the counties told the paper that the counties no longer have a relationship with the fund and don’t know who its other donors are.

In addition to the fund, AAI also has a political action committee, the Iowa Agribusiness PAC, whose donors might provide clues about who else supported the fund.

From 2003 through 2015, according to Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board records, the PAC’s top contributor (aside from AAI itself) was Tracy Gathman, general manager of the Pella-based Two Rivers Cooperative. Gathman, who also chairs AAI’s board of directors gave $6,613 to the PAC.

The PAC’s other top donors include Mark Reisinger of Ames, a senior marketing manager at DuPont Pioneer, who gave $5,413. Adding $5,000 apiece were CF Industries Employees’ Good Government Fund, run by the Illinois-based fertilizer manufacturer; the Rain and Hail Insurance Society PAC; and Steve Meyerholz of Iowa City, agronomy manager at ag products company Eldon C. Stutsman Inc. and an AAI district director.

Steve Cummings, animal marketing manager at Oakville-based Tri-Oak Foods Inc., gave $4,625. Craig Struve, CEO of Calument-based Midwest Independent Soil Samplers LLC, gave $4,025. (Both Cummings and Struve also sit on AAI’s board.) Bob Haney, former chairman of the Johnston-based Rain and Hail Insurance whose PAC gave $5,000, himself added another $3,500. Dave Tierney, a regional director of government affairs for Monsanto and AAI’s chair-elect, gave $3,060. Another 24 donors, including four from outside Iowa, have made four-figure donations to the PAC since 2003. (Brinkmeyer, AAI’s CEO, gave $1,040 to the PAC.)

The Register reported that the Des Moines Water Works has paid more than $640,000 in legal fees out of the $700,000 the public utility has set aside for the lawsuit over the cost of cleaning high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River caused by ag runoff. The utility’s customers are covering that bill.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.