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An Iowa Board of Regents member worked behind the scenes to create a university institute honoring her husband, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, and then pushed for its approval before two of the couple's allies left the board, according to an email obtained by The Associated Press.
The 2011 email from then-Iowa State University Provost Elizabeth Hoffman describes the top-secret process that Ruth Harkin and a small group of officials pursued in planning the Harkin Institute of Public Policy, which remains mired in controversy nearly two years later. It noted that an ethics scandal involving a similar institute honoring New York Rep. Charlie Rangel made the Harkins aware "that they needed to make sure the fundraising was very above board," but they have faced questions about their relationship with donors nonetheless.
"I'm sorry I have not talked with anyone about it, but Ruth wanted it to be very private until it came before the Board," Hoffman wrote to the dean of the university's agriculture college on April 9, 2011, in an email marked "CONFIDENTIAL," which was released to the AP in response to an open records request.
Hoffman's email said the plan was advanced at Ruth Harkin's urging before the board terms of two Harkin allies expired. They are Iowa Cubs chairman Michael Gartner, who has raised money for the institute; and Democratic Party powerbroker Bonnie Campbell, once supported by the senator for a federal appeals court judgeship.
Gartner and Campbell voted for the plan that passed 6-2, with Ruth Harkin abstaining, on April 27, 2011. They left the board days later and were replaced by appointees of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who had sought to delay a vote to allow more debate.
The institute is proposed as a place where scholars will study papers from Harkin's four decades in Congress and research issues such as agriculture, education and others important to Harkin, an ISU alumnus. But Republicans opposed it from the beginning, arguing it was inappropriate to name a center after a current politician.
The Harkins are locked in a dispute with university leaders over restrictions on the institute's ability to research agriculture. And they have faced questions about fundraising because some of the institute's six-figure donors have business in front of the Senate and Harkin, a powerful committee chairman.
Hoffman's email to College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean Wendy Wintersteen suggests some of the controversy stems from the plan's hasty approval. The email marked the first time Wintersteen was notified, even though agriculture was to be a focus of the institute's research.
The college and farming groups later pushed to require the institute to leave agriculture research to its highly-regarded Center for Agricultural and Rural Development. ISU President Steven Leath issued guidance in November requiring the institute to collaborate with CARD on such research, saying he wants to avoid duplication and protect CARD's prominence. The Harkins argue institute researchers must be allowed to study agriculture without restriction and have raised the prospect of moving his papers elsewhere.
In a newspaper column last month, Leath said the proposal sent to regents failed to note the duplication because it had not been "broadly discussed on campus" and Wintersteen was not informed until after it was sent.
Hoffman said Wednesday her email to Wintersteen was a courtesy since the institute was not located in her college. She said it is not unusual for proposals to be kept quiet until they are on the regents' docket, and the proposal was earlier discussed by the Council of Provosts, which is the normal process.
"I do not believe the plan was speeded up or slowed down for any reason," Gartner said Wednesday. "It was done in the usual careful way."
Hoffman's email appears to contradict prior claims by Gartner that Iowa State officials approached Harkin with the idea and asked him to donate his papers. She wrote that Ruth Harkin, a member of the university's governing board since 2005, approached university officials "about a year ago" about starting the institute. On Wednesday, Hoffman said she did not doubt Gartner's account but was "not sure what the genesis was" for the plan.
In an email Thursday, Ruth Harkin said former Democratic National Committee Chairman Chuck Manatt approached Tom Harkin in June 2010 "about setting up an institute in his name and requested he give his papers to ISU." Manatt has since died. Harkin said there was no attempt to keep the plan secret.
In the 2011 email, Hoffman wrote that the original idea was to raise $10 million and that remained the plan, but "Charlie Rangel's ethics problems gave them pause that they needed to make sure the fundraising was very above board." Rangel was censured by the House in December 2010 for ethics violations that included using congressional letterheads and staff to solicit donations for a center named after him at City College of New York.
"So, we slowed down and were planning for a much longer process," Hoffman wrote. "But, then (Ruth) realized the board was going to turn over and wanted it to 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."
The institute has received $1.6 million in donations and $1.5 million in pledges. The Associated Press reported last month that $500,000 came from a South Korean businessman and an Iowa metals company he leads, who are pushing for Harkin's legislation to transition the country to a dollar coin. Emails show Ruth Harkin has played a key role in fundraising. Tom Harkin has refused to comment on his role, and his spokeswoman says he has done nothing improper.