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Ethics Board Shouldn't Shush the Public

August 25, 2012
Des Moines Register


The meeting room at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement was packed Tuesday evening, as a guest from California told a crowd of farmers, mothers, academics, retirees and others that Tanzanians were looking to Iowa to see if they can trust democracy. “I never thought mobilization in Iowa would happen,” said an emotional Anuradha Mittal.

It was Mittal’s nonprofit Oakland Institute that first investigated Iowa Board of Regents member Bruce Rastetter and his AgriSol company’s plans to develop about 800,000 acres of land in East Africa. That led to an accusation that Rastetter was using his influence to get Iowa State University involved in a lucrative business deal that would force the eviction of some 165,000 refugee farmers, and turn farmland that should be used to feed people into an agribusiness scheme for outside investors. Journalist Dan Rather called it a land grab, and here in Iowa, it caught the attention of the grass-roots CCI, which filed an ethics complaint against Rastetter with the state.

On the eve of that hearing, CCI members were upbeat. But it was a starkly different atmosphere Thursday inside the state ethics board hearing room. The board listened to CCI’s conflict-of-interest claims and then to Rastetter’s attorney, who called them politically motivated and said a distinguished public official had been “besmirched.”

After a closed-door session, board president James Albert returned with assurances about the board’s independence. But in dismissing CCI’s complaint, he made little secret of his disdain for it, saying it reflected “a profound misunderstanding of Iowa law” and admonishing the group for not citing the right code chapter — which they had done in an amended version.

Interestingly, the board had no criticism of Rastetter for filing an amended financial disclosure statement just that week, so that his occupation, first listed as “farmer, self employed” was amended to CEO of Summit Farms (which includes AgriSol Energy). It ruled that didn’t rise to the level of false or fraudulent.

It also challenged the idea that Rastetter used his influence over ISU, since he didn’t actually vote on the land deal as a regent. Of course, influence can be exerted in more casual ways, simply by virtue of one’s position of authority over those with whom one is doing business

There is room for interpretation, and the board’s ruling could be squared with the laws under which it operates. But the adversarial way in which its president seemed to approach the citizen group that had sought redress from it was puzzling. Everyone listened in pin-drop silence as Albert spoke. After he finished, CCI member Barb Kalbach asked to speak. Instead of a friendly, “I’m sorry, Barb, we don’t allow that, but you’re welcome to give a statement outside,” Albert angrily silenced her, setting up a confrontation. She continued to speak, and he tried to drown her out, pounding the table and declaring the session closed so that the room was swiftly cleared.

Was that necessary? Shouldn’t citizens be encouraged to bring their grievances before the panel, even commended for using institutional avenues of redress? Would another complainant, say a newspaper publisher or a foundation CEO, have been treated that way?

Beyond the attitude, an ethics board is only as good as the ethics laws that govern it — which, when it comes to influence-buying in America, are lacking. It isn’t actionable when a corporation that pumped money into lawmakers’ campaigns is rewarded with legislation favorable to it or its industry. It isn’t considered unethical to appoint people to public boards and commissions even when they have no relevant credentials, or worse — are close to those they’d oversee. Even nepotism gets a free pass in Des Moines schools.

The AgriSol/Tanzania deal involves many forces outside our control: globalization, corporatization of farming, potentially corrupt government officials collaborating on deals that don’t serve their people. But with an Iowa company at the center of it, we at least should have a right to know if our piece of it has integrity — and a responsibility to speak up if it doesn’t.