Harkin Scandal

December 12th, 2012

Controversy over Harkin Institute boils over as new corporate donors revealed

AMES, Iowa—A public spat between allies of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and administrators at Iowa State University has escalated, threatening to implode the Harkin Institute of Public Policy while the institution is in its infancy.

On one side of the dispute, Harkin, his wife Ruth, a member of the state Board of Regents, and other Democratic advisory board members such as former Board of Regents president Michael Gartner, are essentially challenging ISU officials to a high-stakes game of academic chicken. In 2011, the Board of Regents established the Harkin Institute to conduct public policy research and Iowa’s junior senator agreed to donate a ream of documents from his decades-long tenure as a federal legislator.

In late October, Gartner sent an ominous, threatening email to ISU President Steven Leath and published a similar opinion screed in the Des Moines Register this week. The Register reported Tuesday that the Harkins have approached Drake University—a private institution that does not reveal its donors—to house the Harkin vanity project masquerading as a noble policy research institute if the project falls apart at ISU. Bill Knapp, a Drake board member who has donated $500,000 to the Harkin Institute, discussed the contingency plan with Drake President David Maxwell, the director of Drake’s agricultural law center, Neil Hamilton, and the Harkins at a recent holiday party.

On the other side of the dispute are Leath, nonpartisan ISU administrators and academics, as well as Republican members of the Board of Regents—who have long questioned the wisdom of naming a state university public policy institute after a sitting U.S. Senator who is up for reelection in 2014 and could serve in office until 2020 or longer. ISU fundraising documents obtained by TheIowaRepublican.com show that a Korean conglomerate with nearly a billion dollars in federal contracts has donated $500,000 to the Harkin Institute. Leath and other Iowa State administrators sought to protect the preeminent reputation of the ISU’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) by mediating a dispute between liberals on the Harkin Institute’s advisory board and nonpartisan ISU faculty.

Leath, who started as ISU’s president in Feb., inherited the Harkin Institute and its tangled web of conflicts of interests after the Regents approved the entity on a 6-2-1 vote, with Ruth Harkin abstaining. The vote was rushed through in April 2011, just before new regents who questioned the ethics of the arrangement ascended to the board. In the fall of 2011, ISU administrators drafted a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to govern the cooperation of the Harkin Institute and CARD on agricultural policy. All hell has broken loose as Harkin and his allies have engaged in a concerted series of intimidation tactics, threatening the academic reputation of ISU and funding from nonpartisan donors concerned about an increase in politicization of research.

Debate over academic freedom at the heart of the dispute

Harkin and his allies on the Board of Regents have cast the dispute as a crusade between liberal scholars seeking academic freedom against a cabal of conservative agricultural interests. However, important questions about what sort of academic freedom scholars might enjoy at the Institute and how donors may influence university policy remain unanswered. Moreover, the MOU does not limit the freedom of individual scholars to issue studies or commentary on agricultural policy; it simply limits the institutional ability to unilaterally release agricultural research under the ISU banner.

More importantly, Harkin has never detailed what sort of document dump he plans on providing to the Institute. He has not addressed whether journalists and scholars will have access to unedited, internal House and Senate documents or only puff pieces his staff has sanitized. For example, the correspondence of federal legislators and staff is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests and is typically purged after a legislative session. Will the public have access to information showing how legislation was crafted—warts and all—or only the narrative advanced by Harkin aides? As the informal agreement is understood by ISU administrators, the documents will only be vetted by Harkin staffers and political operatives. Harkin has yet to formally agree to give the ISU his papers.

Gartner, a Machiavellian media maven and Democratic donor who has chipped in $100,000 to the Harkin Institute, wrote a passive-aggressive email to Leath Oct. 27. The 998-word diatribe contained a nine-point series of subtle threats directed at Leath specifically and ISU in general if they didn’t submit to demands for institutional dominance by the Harkin Institute over other ISU departments.

Bizarrely, Gartner wrote to Leath that the “reputation of new ISU President Steve Leath will take a big hit just as he hits the ground in his new job” and referred to the MOU as a “ticking time bomb.” Gartner also accused Leath of kowtowing to Republican Regents Craig Lang, the former president of the Iowa Farm Bureau, and Bruce Rastetter, an agricultural entrepreneur, who both opposed the creation of the Institute.

Gartner, however, completely ignores the serious ethical concerns of ISU administrators, who fear a rogue unit blessed with the official seal of ISU approval, funded by Harkin’s campaign donors and free to engage in politicized research with no oversight or controls. Labor unions, large corporations, a federal judge close to Harkin, healthcare companies and Democratic lobbyists have poured more than $3 million into the Institute, raising questions about the academic independence of the university while Harkin gears up for reelection in 2014.

Donations from a Korean company, a powerful lobbying firm, two companies regulated by Harkin’s committee and a federal judge

The largest donor to the Harkin Institute is now a conglomerate based in Seoul, South Korea, which has received nearly $1 billion in no-bid and competitive federal contracts, according to a list of donors to the Harkin Institute as of Nov. 28. TheIowaRepublican.com obtained the donor list through a Freedom of Information Act request. Jin Roy Ryu, the chairman and CEO of Poongsan Corp., has donated $500,000 to the Institute through his personal accounts and the corporate account of his family’s Cedar Rapids-based subsidiary PMX Industries, Inc.

The company has received $607.8 million from 206 contracts with various federal agencies in recent years, according to USASpending.gov. Of those contracts, 53 were awarded on a non-competitive basis. In 2007, Politico.com reported that the U.S. Mint has paid PMX $756 million from 1999-2007. The contracts caused a national uproar because small and mid-sized U.S. manufacturers have complained that the United States shouldn’t accept bids to produce American currency from foreign-owned companies that receive subsidies from their governments and often restrict U.S. imports. Politico.com reported that a South Korean government-owned bank arranged two $70 million loans to PMX in 2001 and 2003, citing Korean press reports.

Denver-based Brownstein, Hyatt, Farber, Schreck, LLP, which donated $50,000 to the Harkin Institute, is the fourth-largest lobbying firm in the United States, with more than $17 million in lobbying revenue as of Oct. 31, 2012. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the company’s clients include pharmaceutical companies Abbott Laboratories, Baxter International and other companies over which Sen. Harkin has influence as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

Furthermore, California-based Herbalife International donated $100,000 to the Harkin Institute. The “global nutrition company,” which has offices in West Des Moines, was the largest donor to Harkin’s 2008 campaign. Company executives and its corporate PAC funneled $87,636 into Harkin’s campaign committee, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics of Federal Election Committee data. That makes the company Harkin’s biggest corporate supporter in his 2008 campaign against Republican Chris Reed. In May of 2011, Tom and Ruth Harkin traveled to California for a fundraiser with Herbalife executives, according to information obtained by TheIowaRepublican.com. Herbalife’s Torrance, Calif.-based PAC also donated $3,000 to Harkin’s 2014 campaign in two contributions dated March 22, 2011 and July 1, 2011, according to FEC data. General Nutrition Centers (GNC), another global nutritional supplement company with interests before Harkin’s HELP Committee, donated $200,000 to the Harkin Institute.

If the Harkins win this dispute and transfer their Institute to Drake University, the public will be left in the dark as Harkin accepts large donations from labor unions, corporations, lobbyists, and Democratic donors while he considers whether to run for reelection in 2014. TheIowaRepublican has learned that Harkin met privately with Leath recently in Washington, D.C. to ask the ISU president to solicit specific amounts from various individual and institutional donors.

When TheIowaRepublican.com submitted a FOIA request relating to the meeting, ISU lawyers responded that no notes existed from the meeting. If the solicitation took place, Harkin would have committed a federal felony. If he follows through on his threat to take his Monument to Himself to Drake University, Iowans will never learn the seedy details of the Harkins’ fundraising for their vanity project.

A full list of donors to the Harkin Institute is available below or you can download a searchable spreadsheet here:

About the Author

Jeff Patch
Jeff Patch is a correspondent for TheIowaRepublican.com. He's a communications, research and political consultant for Iowa candidates, causes and companies. E-mail questions, comments, insults or story ideas to jeff [at] theiowarepublican.com.

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