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Bruce Rastetter: Protesters 'should have to let the process work'

August 23, 2012
Des Moines Register

Watch video of CCI response

Bruce Rastetter, reflecting on summer of public scrutiny, said Thursday that no one who serves on a public board or commission should have to endure the aggressive protests that have been aimed at him.

The loud demonstrations and disruptions of public meetings used by the activist group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement to press accusations of ethics violations, in the end, reflect negatively on his critics, he said.

“The process shouldn’t be where people try to hijack the legitimate complaint process,” Rastetter said in an interview with The Des Moines Register. “They should allow people to have their day in court without protests and signs. They filed their complaint, and they should have to let the process work.”

The six-member Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board on Thursday ruled there was no evidence that Rastetter violated the state’s conflict of interest law. To warrant further investigation, the board said Rastetter would have had to vote as a regent on something that advanced a Tanzanian land deal pursued by one of his agriculture companies.

Agrisol Energy LLC, of which Rastetter is a managing director, has leased 35,000 acres of land in a controversial plan to bring modern farming practices to the African country. Critics have assailed the lease price — 25 cents an acre — though company officials have said the figure is fixed by Tanzanian law.

The issue first received media attention in mid-2011 when a report alleged Agrisol’s original plans would have displaced thousands of refugees, according to the Oakland Institute, a think tank in California.

Iowa CCI members, despite having their complaint dismissed, claimed victory Thursday and vowed to take the issue to the Iowa Board of Regents and the governor’s office. Barb Kalbach said Rastetter’s expanded financial disclosure filing this week, in addition to an initial disclosure filed last year after media attention, were “concessions we extracted because of public pressure.”

“We were doing our job while the ethics board was asleep at the wheel,” said Kalbach, a nurse and farmer from Dexter.

Ethics board members and staff said they plan to propose changes to its filing process to ensure more detailed financial disclosures. Last month, Rastetter told the Register that his financial disclosure form was completed in consultation with board officials, and that he would amend the filing, if necessary.

The board said Rastetter’s first financial disclosure filing was incomplete but not fraudulent, so they were satisfied with an expanded filing he made this week.

The initial disclosure identified Rastetter’s occupation merely as “Farming, self-employed” and included only the phrase “investment income” as the answer to a question on income sources exceeding $1,000.

The updated disclosure describes Rastetter’s position as CEO of Summit Farms and the Summit Group, the umbrella organization that includes Agrisol Energy. It also gives far more detail about his investments, noting specific accounts and acknowledging real estate holdings.

Iowa CCI has mounted an intense two-month campaign to remove Rastetter from the regents.

Dozens of people gathered outside the building in which the ethics board met on Thursday and chanted “shame on him” following the decision. At a regents meeting earlier this month, members interrupted proceedings and about 20 protesters were removed by University of Northern Iowa police. Many held signs bearing an enlarged picture of Rastetter and the phrase, “Fire this man.”

Asked about Iowa CCI’s plans to carry on with its campaign, Rastetter said, “It’s a free country. It’s unfortunate.”

The public scrutiny has affected Rastetter’s business dealings. Documents show Agrisol Energy initially explored developing about 800,000 acres of land in Tanzania, but company officials now say it has no plans of expanding beyond the 35,000 acres it has leased to harvest crops like corn and soybeans.

In February, Iowa State University backed out of its involvement in the Tanzania project because of public pressure. ISU would have provided Extension-style agriculture education to African farmers.

Rastetter, however, said he appreciates the words of encouragement he has received from business partners, all of whom he said know he runs his companies with integrity. This summer’s protests, in that sense, reminded him of what he tries to accomplish through business.

“From that aspect, I think if nothing else, it has strengthened the business and supported why you try to be successful and make a difference in life,” he said.