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January 7th, 2013

Harkin Institute’s culture of secrecy causes controversy at ISU

DES MOINES—A culture of secrecy shrouding the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State University has continued to cause controversy as Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the institute’s namesake, continues refusing to answer questions about the role that he and his wife had in raising money from corporations, foreign nationals and lobbyists for the state-funded think tank. has learned that Greg Geoffroy, a former ISU president and chairman of the institute’s advisory board, regularly purges his email account—avoiding public scrutiny of his decisions as chair of the institute. In April 2011 Ruth Harkin rushed the center through the Board of Regents despite Republican requests for more time to debate the possible pitfalls of naming a state-run research center after a sitting U.S. Senator up for election in 2014.

Geoffroy’s actions as board chair have caused controversy because he installed Ruth Harkin on the board without approval from ISU President Steven Leath, who has the authority to appoint board members. Leath told the Des Moines Register Friday that he will reshuffle the board’s members. ISU officials have said that fundraising for the institute has been impossible with the festering controversy and Harkin’s threat to move his institute to Drake University.

Requiring Geoffroy to produce Harkin Institute-related emails would cost a journalist or citizen $100k

In response to a public records request from, ISU officials said that restoring Geoffroy’s emails beyond a 30-day period would cost about $100,000. Furthermore, ISU lawyers said that Geoffroy could purge his email account regularly because they only contained so-called “transitory” emails, a policy Geoffroy’s office implemented before he left the ISU presidency in early 2012.

In response to’s freedom of information request, Geoffroy produced only one email, a Dec. 4, 2012 missive from Michael Gartner to Des Moines Register reporter Jens Manuel Krogstad, which Gartner apparently blind-copied to Geoffroy.

“Dr. Geoffroy’s practice has been not to retain e-mail of transitory value, consistent with ISU’s Records Retention policy,” ISU general counsel Paul Tanaka wrote to in response to the public records request. No third-party oversight at ISU exists for determining whether a record has historical or transitory value.

Ruth Harkin also purges all emails; Sen. Harkin still refuses to comment has also sought public records relating to the emails of Regent Ruth Harkin.

“Regent Harkin has indicated that she regularly purges her personal email account; and does not have any records that are responsive to your request,” according to Thomas Evans, Jr., the general counsel of the Board of Regents.

Source: the Iowa Capitol .gif-t Shop, “Sen. Harkin’s Reaction to Ruth Harkin’s Emails on the Harkin Institute”

Furthermore, Sen. Harkin has repeatedly refused to answer questions from numerous media outlets relating to his role in raising money and disputes over academic freedom at the policy organization controlled by Harkin’s political allies.

Leath distributed a memo last week that further relaxed research guidelines for the Harkin Institute after objections from Ruth Harkin that any agriculture restrictions would hurt the institute’s ability to raise money from its donors. In response to continued harping about research guidelines from Geoffroy and former Regent Michael Gartner, Leath directed that “[a]ny public policy research conducted by the Harkin Institute focusing on areas found elsewhere on campus is expected to be planned, conducted and published in a cooperative, collaborative manner,” and disputes would be resolved by the ISU provost Jonathan Wickert.

Gartner, a member of the advisory board and a bulldog consigliere to the Harkins, has engaged in a rhetorical war with ISU administrators to allow the Harkin Institute free reign to engage in policy battles as Sen. Harkin considers reelection in 2014 and could serve in the U.S. Senate until 2020 or longer.

Des Moines Register whitewashes developing scandal

While the Register has reported incremental developments in the academic politics-related disputes over research at the Harkin Institute, they have shied away from reporting information about the Institute’s questionable fundraising, such as whether corporations, lobbyists, labor unions and wealthy Democrats could influence policy research at the center.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that Ruth Harkin pushed for absolute secrecy about the Harkin Institute until she lined up the votes from allies on the Board of Regents. The Register declined to run the AP’s story online or in its print edition, nor did it cite the development in its Harkin Institute-related story the next day. Nonetheless, the news value of the information is undeniable to any unbiased observer:

“I’m sorry I have not talked with anyone about it, but Ruth has wanted it to be very private until it came before the Board,” then-ISU provost Elizabeth Hoffman wrote in an email April 9, 2011. “So, please keep this confidential until the [regents] docket comes out.” Hoffman also detailed the process that the Harkins orchestrated behind closed doors to raise money for the institute [emphasis added]:

“About a year ago Ruth approached Greg [Geoffroy], [then-ISU foundation president] Dan Saftig, and me about starting a Harkin Institute for policy research related to political issues of concern to Senator Harkin: agriculture, rural development, health, etc.,” Hoffman wrote.

“The original idea was to give $10 million to the university and that is still the plan, but Charlie Rangel’s ethics problems gave them pause that they needed to make sure the fundraising was very above board. So, we slowed down and were planning for a much longer process. But, then she realize the Board was going to turn over and wanted it come before the board while Michael Gartner and Bonnie Campbell were still on the board. So, we are starting with what they have raised so far and will build from there.”

[editor’s note: the Register finally published the AP story on page 5A of today’s print edition (including a front page tease)—four days after the story was released]

As the Associated Press noted, Sen. Harkin supported Campbell for a lifetime appointment as a federal judge. Even though the Register is an Associated Press member, it has consistently declined to seriously address the fundraising role of Ruth Harkin, a lobbyist for oil giant ConocoPhillips and Harkin’s most trusted political advisor.

Conflict of interest as Register staffers attend Harkin Institute off-the-record donor events?

Public records obtained by show that Register editors and staff have attended off-the-record fundraising events planned for high-dollar donors to the Harkin Institute. Gartner invited Register editorial page editor Randy Evans, Register editor Rick Green (who didn’t RSVP) and Register pollster Ann Seltzer to a private, invitation-only breakfast with donors and political commentator Charlie Cook in Nov. 2011. This event was held at the Cubs Club, the venue that Gartner controls as the principal owner of the Iowa Cubs.

Gartner invited Register journalists and “a few selected people– primarily the donors so far to the Institute. Most live in Des Moines — the Nelsons, The Tom Urbans, the Bill Knapps, the Jim Cownies, Barry Griswell, the Tim Urbans, the Harry Bookeys, the Autrys, Danny Homan, etc. I don’t think these people are likely to take 2 1/2 hours out of mid-day to drive to Ames,” according to an email Gartner sent Nov. 2, 2011.

The Register backed up Gartner, a former Register editor, in an unsigned editorial echoing Gartner’s talking points on the academic freedom issue Dec. 11. Meanwhile, no Register reporter has asked Sen. Harkin about this issue during the last three weekly media calls that Sen. Harkin has held for Iowa journalists (one of which no Register reporter even bother to join).

Despite Harkin’s continued refusal to comment on these legitimate questions, the Register has consistently declined to challenge the powerful lawmaker. Gartner, who boasts (perhaps jokingly) in emails that he has been Ruth Harkin’s man-servant for the last eight years, has raised holy hell about supposed influence by agricultural entrepreneurs while he accepts six figure checks from corporations, foreign nationals, lobbying firms and others with interests before Harkin’s personal office and committees.

“I’ve set aside the whole day for chauffeuring duties — as I usually have to when Ms. Harkin is in town,” Gartner wrote in a Nov. 11, 2011 email to Harkin Institute director David Peterson and Ruth Harkin. “I have been her driver for the past 8 years, which, Lord knows, has not been an easy assignment.”

The Harkin Institute has raised only $1.6 million dollars (although it has $3.1 million in pledges), despite a fundraising goal of $10 million. Nonetheless, the most recent donor story posted by the Register on Dec. 12 still erroneously states that Bill Knapp is the largest donor to the institute, despite public records showing that Knapp has not transferred a cent to the Institute. His donation is merely a pledge in his will to transfer $500,000 from his estate when he dies. The Register has also declined to report in-depth on the donations from PMX Industries and Chairman Jin Ryu, which also amount to $500,000, besides including a one sentence mention in the Dec. 12 donor story and running an Associated Press story online several days after it was electronically published on the wire.

The preponderance of evidence indicates that senior editors at the Des Moines Register view inquiries about donor influence over the Harkin Institute as illegitimate and not worthy of public discussion or dissemination. The Register’s deference to one of Iowa’s most powerful politicians is a disservice to readers and all Iowans. Why is the “newspaper that Iowa depends on” sycophantically saluting a sitting U.S. Senator for establishing a state-supported think tank that accepts six figure checks from hat-in-hand donors while the Senator continues to raise money for his reelection campaign?

[’s past coverage of the Harkin Institute]

[image credit: Iowa State University’s Harkin Institute of Public Policy; Ruth Harkin talks with Greg Geoffroy]

About the Author

Jeff Patch
Jeff Patch is a correspondent for 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]

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