Gov. Terry Branstad vetted new regent before Mary Andringa resigned

Senator calls appointment 'extremely inside deal'

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On April 22 — five days before Mary Andringa submitted a letter to the governor’s office about her decision to resign from the Board of Regents — Gov. Terry Branstad asked Mike Richards, one of his longtime political allies and supporters, to come in for an interview about “a potential appointment.”

Richards, who has given more than $40,000 to Branstad’s political committee since at least 2009, met with the governor in his “formal office” in the Capitol building at 9:30 a.m. April 28 — the day after Andringa publicly announced plans to resign her regent post. Immediately after that meeting, at 10 a.m., Branstad met with Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter in his “personal office,” according to emails and documents obtained by The Gazette.

A week later on May 4, Richards’ assistant submitted his resume and formal application for the regent vacancy to the governor’s office. On May 6, Branstad announced Richards will replace Andringa, who left the board April 30 after serving just one year of her six-year term.

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said those revelations give the appearance the regent appointment was “an extremely inside deal.” He said the regents have touted transparency, but it now appears members of the public never had a chance to apply.

“This will lead us to thoroughly scrutinize this nominee,” Dvorsky said. “We will have a lot of questions about that.”

The Board of Regents, comprised of nine volunteer members appointed by the governor, oversees Iowa’s three public universities — University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa. Richards’ appointment to serve out Andringa’s term through 2021 comes amid concerns around the board’s leadership among some faculty, staff, and students across the campuses.

In the fall, hundreds staged protests on the UI campus calling for regent resignations after the board’s search for a new UI president landed businessman Bruce Harreld. In the past few weeks, some UNI faculty criticized the board for not doing more to retain outgoing UNI President Bill Ruud.

Because Richards’ appointment must be confirmed by the Senate, he’ll serve on an interim basis until the Legislature reconvenes in January — starting with the board’s June meeting next week. The agenda for that meeting includes discussions on tuition increases, the search for a new UNI president, a board policy rewrite, a future “Regents Resource Center” in Des Moines, and university president performance and compensation.

Only one other person applied for the recent regent vacancy — a 28-year-old Democratic military veteran who said he wanted to see more political balance on the board, according to the documents.

Although the governor’s “standard practice” for filling board vacancies involves listing them on its boards and commissions website, an online screen shot of the site on April 29 — two days after Andringa’s public announcement — showed “0 of 9 open” seats on the Board of Regents.

Ben Hammes, communications director for the governor’s office, said he can’t confirm the position was actually shown as vacant on the website. And, he said, no law exists requiring that happen.

“But that is our standard practice,” he said. “That’s how we would normally handle it.”

Iowa Code requires the Board of Regents maintain gender and political balance — with no more than five members coming from the same party. Richards is a Republican, as was Andringa, maintaining the board’s membership of five Republicans, three independents, and one Democrat.

But Bart Randolph, 28, of Council Bluffs, said that mix doesn’t seem to comply with the spirit of the law, which is why he on May 2 submitted his application for the regent vacancy.

“A big part of it was getting some Democratic representation on there and getting representation from a different kind of sector and different parts of the state,” he said.

Randolph, a small-business owner and military veteran, said he received an automatic response from the governor’s office notifying him the application was received. But, he said, no one with the governor’s office ever followed up with him regarding his application.

“It didn’t really surprise me,” Randolph said, expressing some concern about the Richards’ appointment. “I saw that he donated $40,000 to candidates — to Branstad himself — and it almost seems more like a patronage appointment than anything.”

Richards, 68, is a UI graduate who on his application listed his occupation as “private investment” with Richards Consulting Group. According to his biography, which a Des Moines-based marketing and public relations firm provided to the governor’s office May 6 and which the governor’s office disseminated publicly hours later, Richards spent nearly 20 years as a physician in private practice and now is vice chairman and managing partner of Quatro Composites, a manufacturing company in Orange City.

He’s co-founder, board member, and owner of Wild Rose Entertainment, a casino and resorts venture of his longtime colleague Gary Kirke, founder of Kirke Financial Services, a business consulting and real estate development company.

Kirke, Richards, and Rastetter have been touted as Iowa “kingmakers” for their support of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in his bid for the White House — both in this election cycle and the last. They’ve all made significant political contributions to local and national Republicans, co-hosted political fundraisers — like for U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley last year — and urged Branstad to run again for governor in 2009, according to public records.

In an April 25 email obtained by The Gazette, Richards’ assistant Kari Greenlee told Alicia Freed, Branstad’s executive scheduler, the governor “spoke with Mike Richards on Friday afternoon and asked him to come in this week for an interview.”

Freed then forwarded the email to Michael Bousselot, chief of staff for the governor and lieutenant governor, asking, “Do you know what this is about?”

“A potential appointment,” Bousselot wrote back.

The April 28 meeting between Richards and Branstad was booked later that afternoon.

When asked about the governor’s vetting of Richards — even before Andringa had submitted her resignation letter to the governor’s office — Hammes said the governor chose Richards “based on his experience both in the medical field and his time and knowledge of the universities.”

“(Branstad) tried to pick the best person and thought Richards would make an excellent regent,” Hammes said. “That’s why he was chosen.”

In her resignation letter to the governor’s office, Andringa said she decided to resign because she “underestimated the time required to fully serve in this capacity.”

“I have regrettably come to realize that the capacity necessary to fulfill the needs of the position at a level that is exemplary to me does not align with what I can realistically provide, given pre-existing commitments and responsibilities,” according to her letter, obtained by The Gazette.

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