Among the new facts disclosed last Thursday, surrounding the hiring of J. Bruce Harreld to be president of the University of Iowa, was the previously unknown role played by Iowa State University President Steven Leath.
The day before applications were due for the vacant University of Iowa presidency, J. Bruce Harreld met with four members of the Board of Regents and had dinner with Iowa State University President Steven Leath.
Given the importance of Friday’s unintentional admissions by members of the Board of Regents that Harreld’s hire was indeed improper, it’s understandable that Leath’s apparently minor role in the recruitment of Harreld has received little attention. In a follow-up piece about Leath on Friday, however, Press-Citizen and Des Moines Register higher-education reporter Jeff Charis-Carlson detailed a particularly noteworthy assertion by Leath that fundamentally changes the narrative surrounding Regents President Bruce Rastetter.
From the beginning of the Harreld saga until last Friday the focus of attention has been on the hiring process and result. Lurking in the background, also from the beginning, has been a deep suspicion by many that Regents President Bruce Rastetter orchestrated the hiring of the candidate he wanted all along. But until last Friday that issue remained secondary to questions about the hire itself, including whether Harreld was even qualified for the job.
As might be expected in that context, each new defense of the regents’ unanimous vote for Harreld addressed those same concerns, including responses from Governor Terry Branstad, from acting University of Iowa President Jean Robillard, from Regents President Rastetter himself, and from other members of the Board of Regents. All spoke in support of the election, in support of the regents’ right to make the decision they made, and in support of Harreld.
Now here are the opening graphs of Charis-Carlson’s PC/DSM article.
The president of Iowa State University said Friday it was his idea to host a dinner this summer for Bruce Harreld, who was then a prospective applicant for the University of Iowa presidency.
ISU President Steven Leath said that Bruce Rastetter, president of the Iowa Board of Regents, had asked Leath for permission to share his contact information with Harreld, to which Leath agreed. Rastetter was recruiting Harreld, a former IBM executive, along with a few other candidates, as a replacement for then retiring UI President Sally Mason.
After Harreld and Leath made contact, Leath invited him to dinner July 30 at the president’s residence. The dinner was preceded by several meetings in Ames that Rastetter had arranged between Harreld and four other members of the Iowa Board of Regents, two of whom were members of the UI Presidential Search and Screen Committee.
Take a look at the first sentence in the text above. That is not a statement in defense of Harreld as a candidate, nor a statement in defense of the regents’ right to hire whomever they choose, nor a statement in defense of the hiring process, and it is not a statement in defense of the reputations of the other eight members of the Board of Regents. It is, instead, the first statement I can find, by someone in a position to know, which is solely a defense against the percolating charge that Regents President Rastetter personally orchestrated the hiring of J. Bruce Harreld.
Until now — and admittedly I may have missed something — there has only been speculation about Rastetter’s behind-the-scenes role. Until last Friday, any defense of Rastetter’s actions by others, and by Rastetter himself, spoke solely to the hire. And yet suddenly, on Friday, we have Leath’s flat statement that it was his idea to invite Harreld to dinner — a statement that has virtually nothing to do with Harreld’s hire, and everything to do with whether Rastetter orchestrated the hiring process.
Which means that right there is an alibi. And from the sitting president of Iowa State University, no less.
What’s particularly curious about Leath’s unambiguous assertion — that he himself proposed hosting a dinner with Harreld which did take place — is that it makes no sense given the context of the interaction that Leath admits to having had with Rastetter. Despite the fact that Rastetter openly acknowledges orchestrating Harreld’s visit with other regents on that day, at Rastetter’s own place of business in Ames, Leath asserts a diametrically opposed narrative in which Rastetter calls him for permission to give out what I assume to be Leath’s personal contact info, as opposed to the readily available contact information used to reach Leath in his official capacity as the President of Iowa State University.
But if Rastetter said nothing about Harreld’s schedule for that day, how would Leath know to invite Harreld to dinner? And if Rastetter did detail Harreld’s schedule, wouldn’t the open block of time around dinner have to be communicated by Rastetter to Leath? If so, why is Leath making such an iron-clad factual statement when it’s unnecessary? Are we really to believe that Rastetter made no mention of Harreld being free for dinner? Or that Rastetter made no mention of when Harreld was leaving town? Or that Rastetter made no mention of how hungry Harreld might be at the end of his long day privately hobnobbing with four members of the Board of Regents? Why go out on that limb when you don’t have to go out on that limb?
The obvious answer is that Leath is providing Rastetter with the first salvo in what will become a barrage of similar alibis designed to give Rastetter plausible deniability. And as far as that goes, if the two men stick to their stories nobody will ever be able to prove otherwise. And yet, simply by providing Rastetter with an alibi for the dinner that Leath had with Harreld, Leath has now made himself a player in the original question, which is how someone with Harreld’s demonstrable lack of qualifications managed to get himself unanimously elected by the regents.
Despite being presented three fully qualified candidates with excellent credentials, the Board of Regents, either as a result of incompetence or corruption, gave preferential treatment to the one finalist who couldn’t spell IBM on his resume after working for IBM for thirteen years. Then they gave that candidate $4,000,000. It’s the kind of thing that looks worse and worse the closer you look at it, and has so much stink on it that you can’t blame everyone involved for wafting up to the press and asserting that nothing improper happened, even as every attempt to do so makes it that much more apparent that everything about the Harreld hire was improper.
Had Leath simply said that Rastetter asked him to host a dinner, Leath would be in the clear on a day when Rastetter’s manipulative fingers were already all over Harreld’s itinerary. But that’s not what Leath said. What Leath said was that dinner was his idea, and that Rastetter — a man known to broker deals all over the country on behalf of Governor Terry Branstad, and the man who brokered Harreld’s face-to-face meeting with four other regents on that same day — merely called Leath for permission to disclose Leath’s personal contact info to Harreld.
Now, if you’re still finding it hard to imagine that the fine, upstanding members of the Board of Regents conspired to elect J. Bruce Harreld — with or without the aid of acting University of Iowa President Jean Robillard, and Iowa State University President Steven Leath — or even that eight of them just took their marching orders from Regents President Rastetter, let alone that they all then turned around and lied about it to the press, remember this from an earlier post about the Harreld hire.
From the point of view of business and politics, while not everyone is corrupt, the only thing that matters is whether an action — an actual deed — is illegal or not. Or, more accurately, provably illegal. From that perspective it literally does not matter what a businessperson says or what a politician says. Unless you’ve got a promise in writing you’ve got nothing, because the only real test is whether an act or deed will hold up in court. Yes, people in business and politics pay lip service to customers and citizens, but in the end the only thing they fear — the only authority that gives them pause — is the legal system. Not the law, but the legal system.
Which is of course why people in business and politics often work as hard at undermining the legal system as they do at selling goods or implementing policy. If there’s only one obstacle keeping you from unbridled power, then weakening, co-opting or corrupting that obstacle is going to be a top priority. If you’re in business, maybe you bend the law legally, through campaign contributions and brokering power behind the scenes. Or maybe you do it illegally, by paying people off or threatening to reveal them in compromising situations. If you’re in politics maybe you bend the law legally, by appointing people to the courts who share your views. Or maybe you do it illegally by taking bribes. Or, if you’re really corrupt, maybe you just make up laws to suit your needs.
Speaking of which, did you know it’s a federal crime to lie to the United States Government? Because a lot of people don’t know that. All you have to do is say something that’s not true when asked, and you can be charged with breaking a federal law even if you’ve otherwise done nothing wrong over the course of your entire life.
Making false statements (18 U.S.C. § 1001) is the common name for the United States federal crime laid out in Section 1001 of Title 18 of the United States Code, which generally prohibits knowingly and willfully making false or fraudulent statements, or concealing information, in “any matter within the jurisdiction” of the federal government of the United States, even by mere denial. A number of notable people have been convicted under the section, including Martha Stewart, Rod Blagojevich, Scooter Libby, Bernard Madoff, and Jeffrey Skilling.
This statute is used in many contexts. Most commonly, prosecutors use this statute to reach cover-up crimes such as perjury, false declarations, and obstruction of justice and government fraud cases.
Normally, unless you’re put under oath in court, you can lie all you want and it’s not illegal — and that includes lying to the press, even if you’re an elected official. There is, literally, no law against it. You can say anything you want, and it means nothing in terms of the legal system. (Perhaps not surprisingly, politicians and their cronies tend to make broad use of that discretionary power.)
Now, here are two people who do know about Section 1001: Governor Terry Branstad and Regents President Bruce Rastetter. They know because it’s the third rail in every waking minute of their lives. As long as they don’t screw up and tell a flat-out lie to the United States of America they can pretty much do what they want.
And here are three people who should bone up on Section 1001: acting University of Iowa President Jean Robillard, University of Iowa President-elect J. Bruce Harreld, and Iowa State University President Steven Leath. They should do that so they don’t accidentally tell a lie to someone who can put them in jail, because it doesn’t have to be a big lie at all. Just a little lie — like the kind you tell when you’re covering for someone — can trigger a conviction under Section 1001.
So while it’s super-great that ISU President Stephen Leath has stepped up to forcefully reassure everyone that Regents President Bruce Rastetter did not orchestrate Leath’s dinner with Harreld, after Rastetter already acknowledged orchestrating Harreld’s meeting with four other regents at Rastetter’s place of business in Ames on that same day, I’m not sure his reassurance counts for much. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that Rastetter didn’t at least discuss the idea of dinner, or suggest it, or arrange it in advance, or flat-out tell Leath he was going to have dinner with Harreld or else, so I have to wonder how Leath’s answer might differ if he was talking to a U.S. Attorney instead of the local press.
As to what to do about all these fine-upstanding people who keep coming forward to explain the stink on them, here’s what I said close to two weeks ago, while discussing the stain of corruption that the hire was leaving on the otherwise sterling reputation of the state of Iowa:
And a good first step would be removing Bruce Rastetter from the Board of Regents, replacing Jean Robillard as the acting president of the University of Iowa, giving J. Bruce Harreld the opportunity to withdraw from the position that was offered to him before he is deposed, and freeing the remaining members of the regents from whatever oath of secrecy or pledge of confidentiality or double-secret probation is being used as a pretext to keep them from speaking to the press and explaining why we should still have faith in them.
Having now heard incoherent rationales from several other members of the Board of Regents, I have to agree with the University of Iowa’s Faculty Assembly for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences — which reached the same conclusion over a week ago — that the entire board must be replaced. Unfortunately, while Tuesday’s taunting and condescending defense of the board by Governor Branstad was obviously designed to enrage the faculty and change the subject, it really only spoke to how disingenuous he seems to have become after six terms in office.
If Governor Branstad does want to leave the current board open to further investigation for the improper hire of J. Bruce Harreld, then the claim that he has no power to replace corrupt political appointees does give him political cover when that day arrives. On the other hand, the governor surely also knows that he could simply ask the sitting board members — whom he appointed — to resign, and they would all do so in order to restore faith in the board and in the governor himself.
If there are any elders in the state who can grasp the damage being done, and they have influence, I would suggest that it’s time to void the Harreld hire and make a change at the Board of Regents before it becomes too late to make a change. Which is of course what Governor Branstad and Regents President Rastetter are stalling for. Then again, that’s how long-term politicians who confuse themselves with the state usually fall.
One minute they’re throwing their political weight around like a schoolyard bully because that’s all they know. Then the next minute one of their corrupt cronies is getting investigated and perhaps even flipped by the federal government, prompting heads of major corporations to mysteriously resign in the middle of the night. All those years spent hammering together a thin facade of respectability, and in the end it gets blown to smithereens by the pathological desire for unbridled power.