IOWA CITY (AP) — The Iowa Board of Regents hired the spokesman for a board member’s private business as the top lobbyist for Iowa State University without publicly advertising the position, the board’s executive director acknowledged this week.
Executive Director Robert Donley announced this month that Joe Murphy had been appointed as ISU’s state relations officer to replace Ann McCarthy, who is moving to a new position overseeing the board’s economic development initiatives.
Murphy spent the past year as director of public affairs for Summit Group, an Ames-based company that grew out of Regent Bruce Rastetter’s family farm and includes “investment and operating companies” in a range of agricultural sectors.
Murphy acted as spokesman for Rastetter when the Republican Party power broker successfully fought a high-profile ethics complaint related to one of Summit’s projects: a plan to team up with Iowa State to develop a huge farm in Tanzania.
Rastetter said Tuesday that he wasn’t involved in Murphy’s appointment. ISU President Steven Leath recruited Murphy, and Donley made the hiring decision, Rastetter said.
Rastetter noted that Murphy, 29, worked for three years as the lobbyist for the University of Northern Iowa before he left last year to join Summit.
“I try not to stand in the way of employees looking for great opportunities. I think that one was for Joe,” Rastetter said. “I didn’t have anything to do with either the recommendation or them reaching out to him, and I think that’s the appropriate way to do that.”
ISU spokesman John McCarroll said someone suggested that Leath consider Murphy, who came “highly recommended.” He said he didn’t know who made the recommendation.
The appointment gives Rastetter, the board’s No. 2 leader, a close relationship with a top aide as he shapes Iowa’s higher education policy. Rastetter leads the board’s lobbying in Des Moines. Regents are asking for funding increases for the three public universities and a $40 million state financial aid program for low-income students. Murphy will be an important part of his outreach.
The board revealed Tuesday that Murphy’s salary will be $110,000, up from the $78,000 he was paid at UNI in 2011.
The Associated Press asked for records related to Murphy’s appointment under Iowa’s public records law. Board officials responded Monday that they did not have any records such as a job advertisement, an offer letter or correspondence.
Instead, Donley issued a statement saying he alone decided not to conduct a search for the position because he needed to hire someone before the legislative session begins in January. The last time Donley filled a similar job — to replace Murphy after his departure last year from UNI — it was advertised in a public posting that noted the board is an equal opportunity employer that encourages women and minority applicants.
Donley said he considered the candidates who applied for the UNI job for the one at Iowa State before pursuing Murphy, who he said did a “phenomenal” job in his previous position. “He has demonstrated the unique talents and qualifications necessary for the job,” Donley said.
It is unclear whether the hiring complied with state rules. The regents’ policy manual urges the state’s universities to post jobs for at least five days and encourages “broad recruitment” in the interest of diversity.
An activist with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a watchdog group that keeps close tabs on Rastetter, called Murphy’s hiring “a classic case of the revolving door between big business and government.” The group has questioned the close ties between ISU, a big agricultural school, and Rastetter, a former executive in the pork and ethanol industries who has donated $1.75 million to the university.
“There is a pattern there that is very concerning to everyday folks. On top of that, now the regents are not even following their normal hiring procedure,” activist David Goodner said. “It just raises more questions.”
The group filed a conflict-of-interest complaint against Rastetter earlier this year after it was revealed that he was leading a group of investors seeking to build a Western-style farming development on land in Tanzania occupied by refugees. Iowa State was a key partner in that project but bowed out amid criticism, and Rastetter’s investment group decided to pursue a smaller project on other land in Tanzania.
A state panel dismissed the complaint after concluding that Rastetter did not take any official action as a regent that would have benefited him financially.
Rastetter acknowledged that the project “might have been cleaner” if a university professor whose job is funded by his donations had not been involved.
Murphy defended his boss during the controversy: “What I can tell you is that Bruce operates with the highest degree of integrity and has long been an advocate for both education and agriculture.”