Former Reiman Gardens Director, ISU Sue Each Other over Lego Art Dispute [Updated]

A butterfly Lego sculpture from Reiman Gardens' first Nature Connects exhibit in 2012. Photo: Scott McLeod/Flickr

This story has been updated with comments from Miles Lackey, Iowa State University’s chief financial officer and chief of staff to President Steven Leath; and Harley Erbe, the attorney representing former Reiman Gardens director Teresa McLaughlin. The latest version also clarifies details about the oversight of the gardens.

A popular Lego sculpture art exhibit is at the center of dueling lawsuits between the former director of Reiman Gardens and Iowa State University in a dispute that the exhibit’s artist claims involves financial decisions made by university administration.

Teresa McLaughlin, the former director, filed suit against ISU in Story County District Court Sept. 1, alleging the university failed to fairly compensate her for commission she’s owed under an exhibit leasing agreement and, in willful violation of the state’s wage payment collection law, for unused vacation days.

In 2012, McLaughlin partnered with New York artist Sean Kenney to bring his nature-themed Lego art sculptures to the ISU-owned gardens. The exhibit was a hit, and in November 2014 McLaughlin stepped down as director to manage it full time. It has since gone on tour throughout the US and in Canada.

In an April press release for this year’s exhibit, which is scheduled to run until the end of October, McLaughlin is cited projecting that 60 lease agreements scheduled through 2020 would net Reiman Gardens over $3 million from the exhibit by the same year.

However, McLaughlin left the gardens altogether Aug. 1, filing suit against her former employer a month later. An effort to reach McLaughlin Friday through her attorney, Harley Erbe, was unsuccessful, but the Informer was able to reach Kenney via a contact form on his website.

“As an external contractor with Iowa State University I have seen a sudden, deliberate, and inexplicable reduction in the amount I am being paid for my services,” Kenney replied in an email. “At the same time they have shaken up the staff that runs my exhibit. The funds for my exhibit are controlled by the division of finance, which is now led by the university president’s chief of staff, Miles Lackey.”

After the publication of this story, Lackey responded to a request for comment saying the finance division had no involvement in the financing of Kenney’s exhibit. “The management of Nature Connects (operationally and financially) is the responsibility of Reiman Gardens,” he said in an email. “All of the net proceeds of the Nature Connects operation stay within the gardens.” He declined further comment because of the ongoing litigation, and Kenney has not yet replied to further inquiries.

Previously, the university’s former longtime senior vice president for business and finance, Warren Madden, oversaw Reiman Gardens and McLaughlin in her role managing the Nature Connects exhibit. (Madden was also involved in hiring McLaughlin’s successor as Reiman Gardens’ director, Ed Lyon, after conferring with ISU President Steven Leath at the end of a search committee process with five finalists named by the university.)

In March, facing Madden’s impending retirement, Leath announced he would reorganize ISU’s business and financial operations effective July 1. Madden’s office was split in two, establishing the divisions of university services, which is tasked with overseeing Reiman Gardens, and finance. Lackey kept his position as Leath’s chief of staff but was also named chief financial officer and now heads the finance division.

A countersuit filed by ISU in an unusual move Sept. 26 offers more details about the nature of the conflict involving the Lego art exhibit.

As the university’s attorneys describe the situation in the court filing, McLaughlin at some point expressed an interest in providing sales and marketing services directly for Kenney’s company, Sean Kenney Designs Inc. Last December, ISU agreed, so long as McLaughlin work as an independent contractor and not represent exhibits elsewhere featuring sculptures that were still subject to four contract agreements with Nature Connects. (Altogether, there are five contracts for the exhibit, the first of which has expired.)

Instead, ISU claims that early this year McLaughlin began presenting herself as an employee of Kenney’s — his director of traveling exhibits — using a separate email address associated with his website, representing exhibits that conflicted with the Nature Connects contracts and benefited a Reiman Gardens competitor, and attempting to hire other university employees to work for his company. (In his email, Kenney disputed this, saying while he was unfamiliar with the details of McLaughlin’s relationship with her former employer, “she was certainly never employed by my company during her time at Iowa State University.”)

The countersuit also accuses McLaughlin of common law fraud, alleging that after the first Nature Connects contract expired she convinced the university to sell sculptures it then owned back to Kenney for $2,100, saying they were of no value but then exhibiting them elsewhere for profit.

There is also a dispute over one of the other four contract agreements, which ISU claims is still active. But in his email, Kenney said, “ISU breached one of these agreements earlier this year so it was terminated, but the other license agreements have remain unchanged.”

After this story was published, Harley Erbe, McLaughlin’s attorney, responded to a request for comment on his client’s behalf, writing in an email: “We are confident that the evidence at trial will substantiate Ms. McLaughlin’s denials and cause the court to reject all of Iowa State’s counterclaims. Ms. McLaughlin looks forward to presenting her side of the story and clearing her name in court.” McLaughlin also filed a response to ISU’s countersuit on Sept. 28 denying its claims.

ISU spokeswoman Annette Hacker declined to comment on the lawsuits. “Because this is active litigation,” she said, “we will respond in court.”

Gavin Aronsen
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.