ISU Prez Leath Dismisses Rastetter Land Deal, No-Search Hires As Non-Stories

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Iowa State University President Steven Leath met Wednesday with members of the Iowa State Daily editorial board to field the student journalists’ questions ahead of the start of the fall semester Monday. During the discussion, Leath was asked about a land purchase he made with the help of Board of Regents President (and Donald Trump ally) Bruce Rastetter that’s raised conflict-of-interest questions, as well as reports about over 300 employees hired at the university and the University of Iowa, including former politicians, without a search process.

Leath was dismissive of both questions, answering the first with a grin and saying: “It’s unfortunate that someone created a story where one didn’t exist. But you’re right, when you add a few of these things up, people might scratch their heads a bit.” There’s a reason for that: As the Des Moines Register pointed out last month in a story about the land deal, ISU policy defines conflicts of interest as situations that “could be influenced by considerations of personal gain, usually of a financial nature, as a result of interests outside his/her university responsibilities.” Leath was looking for recreational property in the vicinity of Ames and reached out to Summit Agricultural Group, a company run by Rastetter, whose subsidiary Summit Farms found a property for Leath that it sold at a seeming bargain to SLS Holdings, a company owned by Leath’s family. As the Register noted: “County records show Summit paid $6,330 per taxable acre for the 180 acres, and Leath’s SLS Holdings paid $4,452 per taxable acre for his 140 acres.” Don Knoell, the assessor for Hardin County where Leath bought the land, told the paper that the land included wooded areas, which are typically worth less than farmland, but that didn’t diminish the appearance of cronyism between Leath and Rastetter — the Board of Regents conflict-of-interest policy states that employees must “avoid actual or apparent conflicts of interest involving personal and professional relationships.”

When the Register first asked Leath about the deal, he refused to directly address the issue. “My personal life, and my wife’s personal life, are nobody else’s business,” he told reporter Lee Rood. “If I addressed every concern of every single uninformed person that was brought to me, I wouldn’t have time to run the university.” Eventually, he decided to talk but changed his story, first saying he consulted with a university attorney about the deal but later a private attorney. Whatever the case, news of the deal happened as ISU and the University of Iowa were already facing scrutiny for hiring former lawmakers without conducting the standard search process beforehand. On Sunday, a Cedar Rapids Gazette investigation revealed that this appeared to be part of a broader practice:

The issue has drawn attention — and raised questions — across Iowa following reports of past and present lawmakers landing university gigs without going through the competitive search process outlined in university policy.

The Gazette reported Iowa State recently hired former Republican lawmakers Kraig Paulsen and Jim Kurtenbach without advertisements or searches, and UI hired former U.S. Rep. Jim Leach to its College of Law without a search in 2013. Newly released documents requested by The Gazette show UI hired Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, in 2015 without a standard search.

UI also hired the state’s former Medicaid Director Jennifer Vermeer in 2014 without a search to the new $210,000-a-year position of assistant vice president of medical affairs for UI Health Care — overseeing the UI Health Alliance.

Other names of executives hired without searches include UI vice presidents Peter Matthes, Rod Lehnertz, Terry Johnson and Mark Braun — Braun since has left to become the Board of Regents’ chief operating officer.

In response to a question about hiring practices, Leath chalked things up to research hires and “a really aggressive spousal hiring program.”

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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.