DES MOINES, Iowa — A watchdog group filed an ethics complaint Tuesday against Iowa Board of Regents member Bruce Rastetter, accusing him of abusing his position on the board overseeing public universities while pursuing a partnership between Iowa State University and his agribusiness corporation, AgriSol Energy.
Rastetter participated in discussions the university had about working with AgriSol to develop a huge commercial farming operation in Tanzania, a project critics have called a land grab.
“This looks pretty bad,” said Ross Grooters, a Citizens for Community Improvement member from Pleasant Hill, in a statement. “Rastetter needs to go.”
About 30 members of the Des Moines-based group delivered the complaint to the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board on Tuesday.
Rastetter’s spokesman, Joe Murphy, said in a statement that an ethics review is welcome and he will cooperate fully.
“We are hopeful that this review will address any questions surrounding Bruce’s commitment to public service here in Iowa and abroad,” he said. “As we have stated before, there is no conflict of interest. Bruce has long been an advocate for education and agriculture and has a strong tradition of providing support and gifts to the Regent institutions.”
Gov. Terry Branstad appointed Rastetter, an agribusiness executive who donated $160,000 to the governor’s 2010 campaign, to the board in February 2011. Rastetter had been working on behalf of AgriSol with ISU since 2009 on a plan to develop 800,000 acres of Tanzanian farmland for crop production.
Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht responded to a request for comment on the allegations by email.
“We are fully confident in the judgment of Regent Rastetter on his decision regarding when to recuse himself,” he wrote.
Critics opposed the Tanzania project because the land had for decades housed 160,000 refugees from Burundi who were being relocated by the Tanzanian government. Investors, who stood to earn millions if the project was successful, argued it would help residents by improving food production and farming techniques. They added they had no role in the relocation.
Officials with ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, which received a $1.75 million gift from Rastetter in 2007, were to implement an AgriSol-funded program providing a range of services and training to help farmers in the area.
Rastetter waited until June 17, 2011 — six weeks after his term started and four months after his appointment — to disclose the conflict, doing so only after the project received publicity. He waited until Sept. 13 before recusing himself from discussions related to ISU’s involvement. That was the same day the university abandoned plans to seek a multimillion-dollar federal grant with AgriSol.
CCI, in its complaint, claims Rastetter falsified financial disclosure statements to the state’s ethics board by omitting information about his wealth and job responsibilities with AgriSol and other companies he manages.
The group says he violated the state’s executive branch ethics law and a separate section of the state code that makes it illegal to falsify disclosure statements.
It also says he violated the regents’ conflict of interest policy, which says “Regents and institutional officials must endeavor to remain free from the influence of, or appearance of, any conflicting interest in acting on behalf of the Board or a Regent institution. Such interest may include, but are not limited to, employment, ownership of, or service on, the board of directors of an organization that has or may have relationships with the Board or a Regent institution.”
CCI said it wants Rastetter to resign from the board or, if he refuses, Branstad to remove him.
Ethics board Executive Director Megan Tooker said a decision will be made first about whether the complaint contains sufficient legal grounds to launch an investigation.
If so, the board orders an investigation.More serious violations may lead to a contested hearing, which is similar to a trial with witnesses, testimony and evidence. If the board eventually determines a violation occurred, it can issue fines.
It cannot remove an executive branch appointee from office. It can only recommend the appointing authority — in this case the governor — remove the violator.