DES MOINES—MidAmerican Energy Company requested and received a refund of the electricity company’s $300,000 contribution to the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State University, raising questions over whether donor funds were meant to support Sen. Harkin or a public policy program at Iowa State.
Sen. Harkin briefly addressed the controversy on his weekly press call with Iowa journalists Thursday, but his press aides booted a reporter for TheIowaRepublican.com from the call several times—preventing a question about the development.
“You are not invited to participate in these calls,” Harkin spokeswoman Kate Cyrul Frischmann said in a post-call email. “Please do not dial in going forward.” Frischmann has told other reporters that the calls are not for reporters working on enterprise stories but for Iowa reporters interested in Harkin’s Washington agenda.
Earlier this month, the Harkin Institute’s advisory board, which is controlled by Harkin’s political allies, voted to recommend that he renege on his offer to donate his congressional records to Iowa State. Harkin complied minutes later, sending a letter to ISU President Steven Leath withdrawing his offer.
ISU’s administration has discussed how to proceed with the Harkin Institute, but they have not settled on a course of action as they have only begun to gauge donor intent. The Board of Regents will ultimately determine the Institute’s fate, but administrators are considering using funds already committed for a public policy program or another purpose—depending on donors’ wishes.
ISU Foundation President & CEO Roger Neuhaus sent Harkin Institute donors a letter last week assuring them that ISU would honor their intent for their contributions.
“Thank you for your generous commitment to the Harkin Institute at Iowa State University,” he wrote. “In light of recent media reports concerning the future of the Harkin Institute, I want to provide all assurances that the Iowa State University Foundation will fully honor the intent of your gift, in consultation with you, as the future of the Institute becomes more clear.”
The largest donors to the Harkin Institute, Cedar Rapids-based PMX Industries and its Korean CEO Jin Roy Ryu, plan to let Iowa State keep its $500,000 donation.
“PMX is proud to be a part of the Iowa community, and the company made the donation to support higher education in Iowa,” said company spokesman Jim Richardson. “PMX is confident that ISU will work with all interested parties to ensure that the funds will be used for those purposes.”
Donors asking for refunds raises ethical questions for Sen. Harkin and his wife, Ruth, a member of the State Board of Regents. Senate Ethics Committee rules allow a member or a spouse to raise funds for a charity, but the charity cannot be “controlled” by the Senator or a family member. Ruth Harkin abstained from the Feb. 5 advisory committee vote (although Pres. Leath has said she is not even a legitimate board member), and Harkin withdrew his offer minutes after his hand-picked board voted.
MidAmerican Energy donated $300,000 to the Harkin Institute in two contributions dated June 30, 2011 and Dec. 7, 2012.
“Each donor should make their own decision,” said company spokeswoman Tina Potthoff. “We have asked for and received our donation back from Iowa State.”
Most small- and mid-level donors—such as advisory board member and Iowa Cubs owner Michael Gartner, advisory board member and former Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson, and developer Bill Knapp—did not respond to inquiries about whether they planned to ask for refunds or what Iowa State should do with their donations.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” Pederson told TheIowaRepublican.com earlier this month. “Those decisions would be up to the university, but I can’t imagine any foundation that would try to hold on to donor funds that have been raised with donor intent.” Pederson also said that a “reputable” university would not keep the money.
“I feel the appropriate thing for ISU to do would be to allow Harkin Institute donors to move their contributions to wherever the Harkin Institute ends up,” said Brent Wynja, a former Harkin staffer who donated $878 to the Institute with his wife, Maggie. “I’m still hoping that something can be worked out at ISU to keep the institute there, but it does not look very likely. As a big fan of both Senator Harkin and ISU, that makes me very sad.”
On Harkin’s weekly media call, a reporter from WHO Radio asked him for reaction to comments from ISU’s Associate Provost for Academic Personnel and Chief Diversity Officer Dawn Bratsch-Prince, who accused Harkin of playing politics at a faculty senate meeting this week. A professor also blamed the Des Moines Register’s “poor” coverage of the institute for contributing to the debacle.
“We’re frustrated and disappointed with [Harkin's] decision. We’re also frustrated with the comments that we’re reading in the media that our freedom is being suppressed when faculty at Iowa State have objected to that interpretation,” Bratsch-Prince said, according to the Iowa State Daily. “It’s important to realize [that it is] more than academic, that this is really a political battle.”
Harkin, a career politicians, said that he has no political dog in the fight.
“I am sorry that this became embroiled in politics,” Harkin told reporters. “It never started that way; it never proceeded that way until two or three people decided to make it a political issue and to inject politics into it—and that’s just a shame… I’m not involved in the politics of this at all. It’s just a shame that that’s where it came to. But I have not been doing anything political on it. I come in to this with clean hands. If it’s become political, it’s not because of me. I never ever injected politics into it—not even once.”
Harkin, who has announced his retirement at the end of 2014, said he hasn’t reconsidered his decision.
“I haven’t seen anything forthcoming from Iowa State at all, any changes there,” he said. “I don’t think the ball is in my court.
Harkin also repeated his dubious claim that Iowa State asked him for his papers.
“As I said many times, I never sought this out, they came to me and asked me for this,” he said. “All I said, was, well, If I’m going to leave my papers, I want to make sure that there are not undue restrictions put on the institue.”
An email from April 2011 by then-ISU Provost Elizabeth Hoffman detailing the genesis of the Harkin Institute contradicts Harkin.
“About a year ago, Ruth [Harkin] approached [then-ISU President] 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.
Hoffman also noted that the Harkins raised seed money for the Institute and sped up their plans so it could come before the Board of Regents before the terms of Gartner and Bonnie Campbell, who Harkin nominated for a lifetime appointment as a federal judge, expired.
Harkin Institute director David Peterson, a professor of political science, has called Harkin’s charge that ISU is restricting academic freedom “insulting.” Peterson and Leath, who called Harkin’s claims false and unfounded, noted that the initial restrictions occurred during the tenure of Geoffroy, and that Leath has actually increased academic freedom at the Harkin Institute.
The latest guidelines issued by Leath are not even binding: “any 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.”
“President Leath’s directive doesn’t restrict academic freedom, rather it addresses efficient management of the University,” Peterson said. “There are no restrictions on what the Harkin Institute can do,” Peterson said. Harkin’s papers, assuming he still donates them to Iowa State, “will be archived by the university library, where any student, faculty member, or researcher will have access to them and be able to conduct any research that they like. No one will need prior permission of the institute or anyone else on campus to access Senator Harkin’s papers.”
Seventeen minutes into Harkin’s Thursday press call, Harkin’s press staff booted TheIowaRepublican.com off the line just as Douglas Burns, a writer for the Carroll-based Daily Times Herald, asked Harkin whether he might donate his papers to a community college (as Burns suggested in a column for alternative newsweekly CityView). Burns, a former press secretary for a Democratic congressman and a contributor to the Huffington Post, is a regular participant in the media call.
“Well, sure. I haven’t made any decisions on this,” Harkin said, as the line went dead.
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