If you read the previous post you probably found yourself thinking something like this….
Pshaw, Mark. Why would a US Attorney call up Iowa State University President Steven Leath, just to ask him if he really was the one who came up with the idea of having dinner with J. Bruce Harreld, on a day when Harreld was in Ames at Regents President Bruce Rastetter’s behest, meeting with four other regents at Rastetter’s business office, and benefiting from face time that was not made available to any of the other finalists for the position of president of the University of Iowa?
Well, that’s a fair question — if perhaps also a bit verbose — but we’ll get to the answer momentarily.
The Hen House
More broadly, you may be wondering why someone in the United States government would even care if a small group of corrupt bureaucrats hijacked the election of a university president. Don’t the feds have enough to deal with, what with every other thing going to hell in a handcart twice a week? Well, yes they do. But.
The thing about the federal government is that it doesn’t mind blowing money on its own terms, but it really doesn’t like it when somebody steps in and does so without permission. It’s kind of like how you feel about your own bank account. If you go on a drunken bender and drop $2,000 that you can’t account for when the weekend is over, well, there’s an important life lesson, or maybe six. On the other hand, if somebody steals twenty dollars from your wallet, chances are you’re going to make a federal case out of it, and rightly so.
While there are lots of colleges and universities across the country, most of them are not major research institutions. And while I don’t have a handy graphic that defines ‘major’ in that context, I think it’s safe to say that if you’re pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars each year in federal money alone, that you belong in that category. And the University of Iowa does that, every year. In 2015 the University of Iowa will bring in about $232,000,000, while in 2014 the total amount of federal money was just over $250,000,000. Add in private donations and state money, and each year over $500,000,000 flows into the University of Iowa.
On the federal front various departments are represented by those funds, from Health and Human Services to Education to the National Science Foundation to NASA to Defense. As you might expect, that money also comes with various strings and expectations, and even a few security clearances here and there. Among the expectations is the assumption that nobody will run off with, divert, monkey around with, broker, or leverage said funds for other purposes. So you can understand why the federal government might want to have confidence in whoever is accepting all those checks strewn with zeroes. In fact, they actually pay people to follow up on such things, to make sure there’s no hanky-panky going on.
Now imagine that you’re a state official looking at all that money. You’re not necessarily out to get rich yourself, but you’re more the savvy, cynical type who knows that money is also power. At the state level you are always starved for funds because you can’t print your own money unless you secede, but obviously the track record there is not good. As such, nothing would make your life simpler — or enhance your bully pulpit more — than having access to more money.
So after watching two hundred million in federal funds being poured into the same hole in the ground year after year, and being rebuffed by the eggheads in that hole at every turn, you finally decide to do something about it. Instead of hiring another egghead to take all those fat checks, you plan to install a stooge who will determine where some of those funds go, or maybe who gets to work on certain projects — perhaps after meeting an ideological litmus test, or a loyalty test written in campaign donations around the state.
Another big benefit, from your state-level perspective, is that all of that money is outside money. You don’t have to fleece your own voters or lean on business interests in your state, who might come for you in the wee hours of your political night. Instead, because it’s all federal taxpayer money, you owe that money no allegiance. Like the money you get from all those out-of-state speeding tickets on the interstate, it is pure profit with no strings attached.
In fact, if you’re a clever cynical state official, you might even start shorting the eggheads of state funds a few years before you hijack the presidency. In order to make up the shortfall the university would have to bring in even more outside funding, meaning you would not only have access to more outside money when you stage your coup, you would have more in-state funding to dole out as well.
The Risk and Reward
So what’s the going rate for hijacking the election of a university president? Well, you have to have the nerve to do it, obviously, or at least lack a certain amount of personal integrity. Then you have to find exactly the right dupe, who also lacks a certain amount of personal integrity, but not so much that he won’t follow orders. Then again, if you give your dupe enough money that shouldn’t be a problem — say, about $600,000 a year for 5 years, plus another $1,000,000 in benefits, meaning $4,000,000 out of pocket. Which probably sounds like a lot to the little people, but you would have to pay some sanctimonious egghead roughly the same amount anyway. Plus it’s not your money or your pocket, so who cares?
Is it worth the risk? Well, unless you’re a bumbling idiot you know you can steal the election, so the only important question is the potential profit. Although past performance is no guarantee of future returns, you’re confident over those same five years, conservatively, that the federal government will send one billion dollars — with a ‘b’ — to your hijacked university. And that’s before you get to private donations and corporate donations, or even state contributions, which will miraculously bounce back to their previous levels once you’re in control.
So, for your $4,000,000, plus the time and expense of rigging the election, you net yourself a $996,000,000 federally funded influence-peddling ATM over five years. Which means your annual return on that investment will be 24,900%.
As a cynically corrupt state official, can you think of any other way to get that kind of return on your investment — even if you’re willing to break every law on the books? No? Me either.
In fact, as someone watching the Harreld hire play out, doesn’t it make you wonder why business and political interests haven’t teamed up before, just to get their hands on all that loot? Well, that question leads back to concepts like law enforcement and jail, and how the federal government — and even some honest state officials — take a dim view of people corrupting public institutions. Which in turns brings us back to why a US Attorney or some other representative of the federal government might call Steven Leath and ask him if it really was his idea to host a dinner with J. Bruce Harrled, when Regents President Bruce Rastetter already acknowledged orchestrating private face-to-face meetings between Harreld and four regents on that same day.
So, imagine that you’re one of those uptight, super-square fed types, who really does value service to country over money or cheap power. You were born to dot i’s and cross t’s, and right now your job happens to be making sure that federal money goes where it’s supposed to go at various research institutions around the country. You spend a lot of time in the office, a lot of time on the road, a lot of time in meetings, and a lot of time judging people by various nonverbal criteria that you learned during an exhilarating week at Quantico.
When you get word that a new guy has been elected at an institution that you pour more than $200,000,000 into each year, and that there were irregularities in his resume, and that he was given preferential treatment far in excess of any of the other candidates, and that he has no experience doing the job he’s actually being hired to do, what are you going to think? Are you going to think, gosh, what a visionary hire? Or are you going to wonder what those state clowns are up to at the University of Iowa?
Because if it’s the latter, the next problem you’ll face is who to call to find out. While you could call the governor and his crew, or the people at the Board of Regents who hired the unqualified candidate who lied on his resume and received special treatment from the regents, you’re pretty sure they’re not going to tell you the truth if they’re dirty. On the other hand, you do have some pull with the president of Iowa State University, because his school also receives hundreds of millions of dollars in federal research money each year.
In fact, you’re pretty sure Leath doesn’t want any trouble, so chances are he’s going to be one of the first people you call in order to find out what’s going on. And chances are he takes your call. And chances are, whatever you ask him, he tells you. Even if he doesn’t know about Section 1001. And chances are, when you tell him not to mention your call to anyone else, he honors that request. Because at the end of the day Iowa State University President Steven Leath has a reputation to protect, and when push comes to shove he’s not taking the fall for something he didn’t do.
— Mark Barrett