Harkin Scandal

December 17th, 2012

Harkin Institute raised $1.6m in two years, lagging its $10m goal

AMES, Iowa—Fundraising documents from Iowa State University show that the Harkin Institute of Public Policy has raised barely half of the total its boosters have claimed. The Institute, established by the Board of Regents amid political controversy in 2011, has raised only $1.6 million in the last two years.

Iowa State released documents Friday from its fundraising foundation which revealed that the Institute, meant to promote the policy interests of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), has lagged far behind its fundraising goals. Last week, university officials responded to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from journalists with a list of donations totalling $3.1 million. TheIowaRepublican.com requested more detailed information in a follow-up request.

In April of 2011, Gregory Geoffroy, a former ISU president and chair of the Harkin Institute’s advisory board, told the Des Moines Register that the Institute had raised $3 million. Geoffroy then boasted that total could rise to $5 million in the “next month or two.” Sally Pederson, the Lt. Gov. in the administration of Gov. Tom Vilsack (D-Iowa), leads the fundraising effort, which aims to raise $10 million for the Institute’s endowment.

The documents from ISU’s foundation show that Geoffroy was blowing smoke—to put it charitably. The first pledge to the Harkin Institute was made by Michael Gartner, who is also a member of the advisory board, in May of 2011. He pledged $100,000 but only transferred $10,000 in May. The next donation pledge or transfer was not made until June.

William C. Knapp, who has been identified as the Institute’s largest donor by the Des Moines Register and other media outlets, has not actually transferred a cent for the project. He has pledged to donate $500,000 to the Institute, but Knapp will not actually transfer the funds until he dies (the donation is a bequest in his will).

The largest donor to the Harkin Institute is Poongsan Holdings Corp., which transferred $500,000 to the Institute from PMX Industries, Inc., its Cedar Rapids-based subsidiary, and the personal account of its Chairman and CEO Jin Roy Ryu. As TheIowaRepublican.com previously reported, the manufacturer of ammunition and metals for the U.S. Mint has received nearly $1 billion in federal contracts, grants and other payments. A company receptionist referred a reporter to Jim Richardson, a PMX official, who did not return an email request for comment.

Mary Nelson, who pledged to donate $500,000 through her family’s foundation, also declined to answer questions about her donations last week. The Nelson Foundation, the Institute’s second-largest donor, gave the academic unit $256,498 in two annual payments.

“I’d rather not say anything because of the political controversy,” Nelson said in a brief phone interview Wednesday.

Harkin threat to move Institute to Drake University stirs debate

Since the media firestorm over the Harkin Institute escalated this month, corporations that donated to Harkin’s namesake seem concerned about blowback if the deal falls apart. Sen. Harkin has threatened to renege on his offer to donate his Senate papers to the Institute if they do not submit to his demands to lift agricultural research guidelines. Knapp recently facilitated a conversation with Harkin and Drake University officials regarding a contingency plan to create the Institute at Drake.

“MidAmerican Energy supports both Drake University and Iowa State University, and we hope all parties involved can get their issues resolved,” a company spokesperson told TheIowaRepublican.com last week in response to a series of questions about the firm’s $150,000 donation to the Harkin Institute. Company officials declined to answer specific questions about the June 2011 donation.

Knapp, a Democratic powerbroker in Iowa, plans to use his influence as a board member at Drake University to move the Institute there if the Harkins cannot reach an accommodation with Iowa State. ISU President Steven Leath, who assumed office in Feb.—after the Harkin Institute had been rushed through a Board of Regents vote—is trying to appease Harkin’s wife Ruth, a member of the regents as well as an advisory board member (depending on who you ask) of her husband’s Institute. Leath penned an op-ed in the Des Moines Register Sunday responding to an op-ed by Gartner criticizing Leath in the Register Dec. 11.

Leath’s directive, deemed an outrageous attempt at academic censorship by the Harkins, included this proposed compromise: ag. research should be “planned, conducted and published in a cooperative, collaborative manner,” with ISU’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development. Gartner and the Harkins essentially went to war with the university over a semantic quibble.

“If Iowa State can’t get together and work it out so they’re both comfortable with each other… I’m going to push hard for the Harkin Institute to come to another university,” Knapp said in an interview with TheIowaRepublican.com last week.

Knapp, the “chairman emeritus” of Knapp Properties, Inc., doesn’t know what would happen to donor funds already transferred to ISU if the project implodes, suggesting that some donors’ loyalty to Harkin might trump affinity for Iowa State. A lawyer in Iowa State’s Office of the General Counsel told TheIowaRepublican.com that ISU does not have a contingency plan to return funds to donors or transfer funds to another university if the Harkins back out.

“As far as my commitment is concerned, I would transfer to Drake,” Knapp said. “It’s up to Iowa State [how to deal with donor funds that have already been transferred]. Some [donors] might not want to give money to Iowa State. A lot of times [when] you give money, it might be because you really like Harkin or you think it will be great for the university that gets it.”

Harkin, who has not yet agreed to transfer his vaguely described cache of documents from his tenure as a lawmaker, refused to address the controversy Thursday on his weekly call with Iowa journalists beyond a brief statement he issued in early December. A producer for WHO Radio asked Harkin if he was planning on transferring his papers to Drake instead of Iowa State.

“I have—as I said I have—refrained from making any statements on this, except for the one that I put out a week ago. And that’s all I’ll say,” Harkin said. “I want the best for my alma mater. And Ruth and I have always worked hard to support ISU. But I simply cannot be part of any arrangement that restricts full and unfettered academic freedom at this Institute. That’s my statement, I abide by it, and I’ll make no further statements.”

Indeed, Harkin declined to answer three more specific questions about the Institute. Harkin seems to be using his papers as a bargaining chip to force ISU officials to give in to his bizarre demands to disregard cooperative efforts with CARD.

“This is something I’ll have to look into,” Knapp said, when asked about the contents of Harkin’s papers. “I haven’t gotten that deep into it… I imagine there are a lot of papers. Hell, he’s been in Congress for what, 30 years?”

Download a list of donors to the Harkin Institute as of Nov. 28 [TIR PDF] [Excel] [Google Spreadsheet] [Original ISU PDF] or view the list below:

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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