Regent Rastetter Rejects Ethics Complaint
by Jens Manuel Krogstad
Agribusiness investor Bruce Rastetter said it was a mistake for Iowa State University to cease involvement in a controversial project that would bring modern large-scale farming practices to about 35,000 acres of land in Tanzania.
Rastetter, a top Republican donor and member of the Iowa Board of Regents, also denied any allegations of ethics violations during an interview with Des Moines Register reporters and editors on Wednesday.
ISU announced in February that it was walking away from the project, headed by Agrisol Energy LLC, because of misunderstandings about the university’s involvement. Rastetter, a managing director of Agrisol who owns a 30 percent stake in the company, said ISU would have provided valuable Extension-style agricultural education to Tanzanian farmers.
“I think they backed out because of the controversy, the pressure and misinformation that was out there and difficult to counteract,” Rastetter said.
A leading critic of the deal — the Oakland Institute, a California think tank — has called the project a scheme to make millions off cheap African land, some of which is occupied by refugees. Agrisol says the only land it leases in Tanzania has been unoccupied since 2009.
Last month, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a Des Moines-based social justice group, filed an ethics complaint against Rastetter and called for his resignation from the Board of Regents or his company because of alleged conflicts of interest.
Rastetter, who was making his first public comments about the project since the ethics complaint was filed, said there was no conflict of interest. He joined the Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s public universities, on May 1, 2011.
Addressing the complaint’s allegations, Rastetter said he halted direct involvement with ISU on the Agrisol project before joining the board. He said the regents office worked with him to file his potential conflicts of interest paperwork in June, which he described as a normal timetable. He recused himself from Board of Regents decisions about the project around that time, he said, and did not participate in any votes on the project. In addition, he said the state ethics board assisted his staff in filing personal financial disclosure forms.
“Our people worked closely with staff there when we made the initial disclosure, and if there needs to be more, we’ll do that,” he said.
Rastetter said his public statements in September 2011 about his recusal from the project referred to an earlier action, and not a recent decision to do so.
“It wasn’t a new recusal,” he said. “I’m very comfortable that no conflict existed.”
The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board will meet Aug. 23 to review the complaint and either dismiss it or order an investigation.
Megan Tooker, executive director of the ethics board, said she couldn’t comment on whether anyone from her office helped Rastetter fill out the disclosure forms.