Corruption’s fine line

BY SHAWN GUDE | MARCH 04, 2011 7:20 AM

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The numbers should speak for themselves.

Iowa businessman Bruce Rastetter was the single largest individual donor to Gov. Terry Branstad’s 2010 campaign, contributing a staggering $162,712. Rastetter, who was one of three people Branstad recently appointed to the state Board of Regents, has also contributed thousands of dollars to top Senate Democrats.

And in 2008 — apparently a particularly Machiavellian year for Rastetter — the UI graduate contributed $25,000 to Democratic Gov. Chet Culver and a cool 100 grand to the Iowa Republican Party, according to the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics. (Over the past decade, Rastetter has given more than $30,000 to the Iowa Democratic Party and more than $140,000 to the Iowa GOP.)

Rastetter’s extensive financial ties to lawmakers and both major state parties should disqualify him from consideration for the regents; the Senate should vote against his confirmation.

Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht denied charges of impropriety, calling Rastetter a “passionate advocate for education.”

“Two of his regents appointees donated nothing to Gov. Branstad’s campaign,” Albrecht told me via e-mail, referring to Katie Mulholland and Nicole Carroll. “Gov. Branstad chooses the best available individual for each appointment he makes, without regard to political donations.”

Albrecht also touted Rastetter’s private-sector experience, arguing it would leaven the board. I’m convinced his presence would have the opposite effect.

Setting aside the specious contention that we need a corporate leader on the regents (that is, unless you want even more platitudes about “staying competitive in global economy” tossed around with alacrity), Rastetter’s nomination raises obvious ethical questions.

Iowa is renowned for being a “good government” state; our politics is largely devoid of skulduggery and venality. We don’t have to worry about our governors ending up in handcuffs or a modern-day Boss Tweeds polluting our political process. And I’d like to keep it that way.

Branstad’s tapping of Rastetter is antithetical to that good government ethos. At worst, it’s quid pro quo corruption; at best, it’s a discomfiting display that should make citizens squeamish. Either way, it reflects poorly on the state’s political system and the regents.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, told me that while Rastetter “has the means to participate in a fairly dramatic way,” he’s “not overly worried” about the businessman’s contribution history. Bolkcom said he hadn’t met with Rastetter yet, but he expects the Senate to sign off on the governor’s regent appointees next month.

No one else on the regents bests Rastetter in terms of financial contributions, but they’re hardly inactive. Seven of the eight nonstudent regents have donated money to the governor who appointed them either prior to, or following, joining the board (Craig Lang is the sole exception). It’s pretty innocuous when a regent donates a few hundred bucks to a political campaign, but some regents are shelling out tens of thousands of dollars. Last election, Regent President David Miles gave $22,725 to Chet Culver; Bonnie Campbell donated $15,250 to his campaign.

And then there are the instances of questionable sequential contributions.

Take Robert Downer, for example, who Culver reappointed in 2009. In the 2006 gubernatorial election that pitted Culver against Jim Nussle, Downer threw his financial largesse behind Nussle to the tune of $1,225. In 2008 — the year prior to his reappointment and a year in which Culver wasn’t up for re-election — Downer gave the governor $1,000. Downer then got behind Culver in last year’s election, contributing $1,700 to his campaign.

My intent isn’t to impugn Downer or the rest of the board’s integrity. But there are serious questions we should be asking about regent contributions. Should we accept that, with little compunction, regents often donate thousands of dollars to the governors who tapped them? Where is the line between political participation and I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine corruption? Does the current system crowd out other potential appointees? I don’t claim to have a definitive answer to these questions. What is clear to me, however, is that legislators are too content with the status quo.

The regents make too many important decisions for legislators and citizens not to be more inquisitive.

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