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Emails Show ISU Swapped Expertise for Scholarship Funds in AgriSol Partnership

June 22, 2012
Ames Tribune

Iowa State University officials accepted trips to Tanzania on behalf of Iowa-based AgriSol Energy in exchange for their time and a promise of gifts to the university in the form of scholarship funds, according to recently released email exchanges between top administrators and Iowa Board of Regents member Bruce Rastetter.

The emails, originally obtained by the Associated Press, also show ISU did not become actively involved in planning an outreach project for Tanzanian farmers until January 2011, despite continued public statements from Wendy Wintersteen, dean of ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and David Acker, associate dean of the college, suggesting the outreach component was the basis of ISU’s original interest in the project.

The AgriSol project, which again has become the focus of attention in recent months from both the media and watchdog groups around the country, has largely been criticized for a 2010 blueprint and Memorandum of Understanding with the Tanzanian government that shows AgriSol’s original intention to build large industrial farms on land occupied by more than 160,000 Burundian refugees.

AgriSol since has backed off development of those plots. ISU completely ended its involvement in the project in February.

However, after a California-based policy think tank called the Oakland Institute uncovered AgriSol’s original plan in the spring of 2011, both ISU and Rastetter, co-founder of AgriSol, started taking heat from local and national media, including HDNet’s Dan Rather Reports.

Rastetter, who last year became the president pro tem of the Board of Regents, has come under fire in recent weeks by watchdog group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Rastetter’s dual involvement with AgriSol and as a public official created a conflict of interest worthy of his resignation from the Regents, members of Iowa CCI argued this week in an ethics complaint.

But the relationships among Acker, Wintersteen, a number of ISU professors and AgriSol has remained largely out of the spotlight.

The emails released in recent weeks show ISU’s involvement in the Tanzanian land deal was much deeper than the university has ever indicated publicly.

The outreach program

Although the university says it was involved since late 2008, ISU never signed a formal contract with AgriSol.

ISU’s official statements have said the institution initially was inclined to help AgriSol develop an outreach program for Tanzanian farmers based on a successful program members of ISU’s Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods (CSRL) previously implemented in Uganda.

The university has maintained its role in the Tanzanian project stemmed from expertise of faculty within ISU’s CSRL.

In an opinion piece published in the Ames Tribune Feb. 4, Wintersteen, who declined to comment for this story, described the outreach project in this way: “We viewed the educational program as another opportunity to work with small farmers and families, and to apply lessons learned from Uganda in a different country. We also viewed it as another avenue for our students to engage in service learning as they have in Uganda.”

The op-ed continues: “In initial discussions, the intent had been to take advantage of the Uganda experiences gained through ISU’s Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods and for the center to eventually develop these programs in partnership with the company, Tanzanian universities and other nonprofit groups in the country.”

But emails show individuals who were supposedly spearheading the outreach project weren’t asked to draft a proposal for the program until January 2011, two years after they’d begun working with AgriSol.

Correspondence dated Jan. 23, 2011, from Acker to ISU economics professor Kevin Kimle, the Rastetter Chair of Agricultural Entrepreneurship at ISU, who both declined to respond to multiple email and phone requests for interviews for this story, states: “As a follow up to your message to me in Bangkok on Jan. 18 and our meeting on Jan. 20, I grasped the urgency associated with the development of a plan for the outreach component.”

The email goes on to say: “Because ISU had not been asked to develop a plan until last week we will have difficulty implementing this proposal due to constraints on the key people in terms of their schedules (Acker, Westgate, Kimle). Once we see if this proposal is heading in the right direction we’ll then get serious and find out who is available to give significant time to this. At this point, no commitments have been made.”

ISU Provost Elizabeth Hoffman said she didn’t know specifics about ISU’s initial planning, but said the university was working on the outreach program before January 2011.

“I didn’t see the preliminary things,” she said, “but I know you do a lot of legwork in advance of actually writing a proposal, and, I mean, I can tell you from years of experience of doing National Science Foundation grants, you do years of leg work, and then you sit down and you put it all together, at least I do, in a very short period of time. … What you’re seeing is this was a point at which we were going to put a proposal together and then we suddenly realized this is a very bad idea, we shouldn’t do it.”

While some emails before January 2011 hint at an eventual plan to develop an outreach program, many of the emails show ISU officials were more actively engaged in land scouting and soil sampling during trips to Tanzania as early as 2009.

An email dated Nov. 29, 2009, from Acker includes a three-page proposal showing initial interest in using land currently owned by the Tanzanian prison system. The attachment lays out priorities including developing criteria for site selection, preliminary assessments of candidate sites, and feasibility studies.

A Tanzania-based team was tasked with field data collection.

The documents said “one or more members of the (Tanzania) team” should have regional market knowledge and “also, specific knowledge of biofuels production,” including knowledge of a plant called Jatropha, which is currently harvested in the Philippines and Brazil to make biofuels.

Emails shed light on consulting work

Since ISU became involved in the project, university officials have said ISU professors, including Mark Westgate, director of ISU’s CSRL, and Kimle, have juggled their time between private contract work with AgriSol and their public involvement in the project.

The emails show Acker, who took the lead on the outreach project, was also working as an unpaid consultant for AgriSol.

Westgate, using his expertise from ISU’s Uganda initiative, also had a role in crafting the outreach component. But in February, Wintersteen told the Ames Tribune both Westgate and Kimle had done work as private contractors during their trips to Tanzania.

Expenses for one trip that Westgate took in November 2011 was almost entirely covered by AgriSol, Joe Murphy, director of public affairs at Summit Farms, which oversees AgriSol, told the Ames Tribune in February.

The 11-day trip included work in Uganda for ISU’s CSRL program, time in Tanzania to do research funded through a U.S. Agency for International Development grant Westgate received, and a three-day span that Westgate used to do consulting for AgriSol.

Wintersteen indicated that while ISU paid for Westgate’s flight overseas, Westgate used vacation time for his three days of private consulting work. According to Brian Meyer, spokesperson for ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, AgriSol reimbursed ISU for $22,000 in travel expenses to Tanzania between 2010 and 2011.

But the recently released emails paint a clearer picture of who agreed to pay for what. And that picture couldn’t be more contrary from the one ISU officials have portrayed.

For trips dating back to March 2010, rather than requiring Westgate, who declined to comment for this story, and Acker to take time off for their consulting work, ISU agreed to pay salary and benefits for both of them while they traveled to Tanzania.

Wintersteen in her February opinion piece said, “It is important to note that ISU did not sign or execute any agreement or contract with AgriSol, and has never had a financial stake, investment or commercial interest in the project.”

ISU officials have maintained that while members of the university have worked as private contractors for AgriSol outside of ISU’s official advisory role, the university didn’t see direct financial benefits from their work.

But the emails show ISU officials suggested benefits in the form of scholarship funds in exchange for their consulting.

An email from Acker to Wintersteen dated March 10, 2010, hints at the type of agreements ISU arranged. A trip report dated March 20, 2010, shows travel expenses for Acker’s trip from March 10 to 17, 2010, were paid for by AgriSol while his salary was paid by ISU.

“Wendy, regarding the details on my trip to Tanzania,” Acker wrote on March 10, “Bruce (Rastetter) offered to pay for my travel expenses and I agreed that the college would provide my time with the goal of establishing a donor fund for supporting our students to conduct internships in Tanzania.”

And while later emails indicate Rastetter was willing to foot the bill for all of Acker and Westgate’s expenses, including compensation for consulting, Acker turned him down. A Jan. 28, 2011 email from Acker to AgriSol officials illuminates the deal he hoped to strike.

“To date ISU has contributed 10 days of my time during the last 18 months at no cost to AgriSol,” Acker wrote. “Bruce told me yesterday that if I needed to charge some of my time to the project that would be fine. Rather than ask for any consulting fee for myself or for Mark Westgate, ISU will contribute our time.”

The email continues: “In recognition of this contribution and as a follow up to our discussion earlier this week, I propose that AgriSol establish a scholarship fund at ISU for bringing Tanzanians to the U.S. for graduate training.”

Once the proposed fund reached $65,000, Acker said, ISU would bring its first student. Acker also recommended AgriSol sign a pledge form with the ISU Foundation to secure the company’s donation.

Meyer, the spokesperson for ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said, “Because part of Dr. Acker’s university responsibilities is fundraising, he proposed establishing a scholarship fund to bring Tanzanian students to the United States for graduate training. This was one example of many potential funding sources that have been asked to support student programs in Africa.”

Hoffman said she “was not aware” of the arrangement.

“We’re always talking to donors about gifts,” she said. “Whenever we go to Uganda, for example, with a group of donors, we go to work and we go to show the donors what a great thing we’re doing in Uganda so hopefully they will give more money.”

Warren Madden, vice president of business and finance at ISU, said he also was unaware of Acker’s request. He said he couldn’t speak to that specific arrangement, but said, “there are a lot of these kinds of relationships that are now getting developed with a whole set of different objectives.”

“Certainly one of the outcomes of the issue with AgriSol and Rastetter is a much-elevated sensitivity of needing to assess these relationships,” Madden said, “and making sure people really understand what they are.”

Other emails show Rastetter had moved forward with scholarship donations as early as October 2010. In an act of gratitude for ISU agronomy professor Andrew Manu’s contribution to AgriSol, Rastetter gave $12,000 in scholarship funds to ISU’s Agronomy Study Abroad Scholarship, according to an email from Acker to Manu dated Oct. 21, 2010.

“In recognition of the work you and others in the Agronomy department have done and will be doing with the AgriSol Tanzania project,” Acker wrote, “I am happy to inform you that Bruce Rastetter has generously offered to provide a gift of $12,000 ($4,000 a year for three years) to the Agronomy Study Abroad scholarship fund to support students interested in traveling to Africa …”

Meyer said the scholarship fund is not yet fully funded.

Rastetter declined to comment for this story. Joe Murphy, his spokesperson, sent an email in response to questions about the scholarship funds: “Being that these emails are now under a formal review, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on its content. What I can tell you is that Bruce operates with the highest degree of integrity and has long been an advocate for both education and agriculture. He also has a proud tradition of providing support and gifts to the Regent institutions that benefit students directly.”