Lawmakers expect Iowa Board of Regents appointee will be confirmed

'I think it would be better if we had a more diverse group'

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Several Iowa senators representing districts heavily impacted by the Board of Regents said they “fully expect” a West Des Moines physician appointed to the board on an interim basis Friday will receive senate approval — which is required for all regents.

But that doesn’t mean some don’t have questions and qualms about Mike Richards’ political leaning, history of political donations to the governor who appointed him, and relationship with current Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter.

“I do have some disappointment that he seems to have appointed someone who is a major political contributor,” said Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames. “The appearance is that if you want a seat on the Board of Regents, one way to get it is to make major donations to the governor’s campaign.”

Gov. Terry Branstad appointed Richards, 68, to the nine-member Board of Regents on Friday after former regent Mary Andringa last month resigned from her six-year term after just one year. All regent appointees must be confirmed by the senate, but Richards will begin serving immediately on an interim basis because the Legislature recently adjourned and will not be back in session until January.

Quirmbach said he expects lawmakers will address the regent appointment promptly upon reconvening.

“I would expect it’s likely that we would confirm him,” he said. “But we have to do our work, and we will do that promptly come next January.”

Between now and the next legislative session, the Board of Regents has five scheduled meetings, during which members will discuss tuition increases, university presidential performance, and legislative funding requests — among other things.

“I would prefer that vacancies occur according to schedule, and the senate’s role in reviewing nominees would take place before they actually assume the duties,” Quirmbach said. “But when we do have a timely review, we will have some experiential basis on which to cast our judgment.”

Richards, who applied for the regent vacancy, is a registered Republican, as was Andringa, maintaining the current mix of five Republicans, three independents, and one Democrat on the board, which oversees Iowa’s three public universities and two special schools. State law requires the board have no more than five members of one party.

Richards, according to a news release from the governor’s office, earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Iowa and it School of Medicine before entering private practice, where he spent nearly 20 years. He’s been on several health care-related boards and committees and currently serves as vice chairman and managing partner of Quatro Composites, a carbon composite manufacturer in Orange City with more than 230 employees.

Richards an “active” philanthropist, and he’s been active politically — state records show since at least 2009 Richards has given more than $40,000 to Branstad’s committee.

He’s also given $12,500 to Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds since 2013 and tens of thousands of dollars to other Republican politicians both locally and nationally, according to public records, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, and U.S. Rep. Steve King.

In 2011 and again this year, Richards and Rastetter were among the “Iowa kingmakers” touted for their support of Christie’s bid for the White House. Richards in 2007 joined Rastetter and others as an initial investor in the Iowa Energy, an NBA D-League expansion team based in Des Moines.

He previously was president of Wild Rose Entertainment, a casino and resort venture of his longtime colleague Gary Kirke, founder of Kirke Financial Services Inc., a business consulting and real estate development company.

Kirke, a key investor in Quatro Composites, was touted with Richards and Rastetter among the “Iowa kingmakers” supporting Christie. He also was involved with Rastetter in urging Branstad to run again for governor in 2009, according to media reports.

Quatro manufactures equipment for the aerospace and medical industry, and it’s a client of Iowa State University’s Center for Industrial Research and Service.

Quirmbach said he’s grateful to any prominent individual willing to serve as a volunteer regent, but lawmakers need to be clear and careful about potential conflicts of interest.

“That has to be something we have candid conversations about,” he said. “That doesn’t disqualify him, but he has to be very very careful.”

Senators also likely will have frank discussion about the heavy Republican tilt of the board, Quirmbach said.

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said he thinks Gov. Branstad is circumventing the spirit of the law by appointing another Republican to the board that has just one Democrat.

“He’s another one of the governor’s big contributors,” Dvorsky said. “I think it would be better if we had a more diverse group on the board — rather than the governor’s big contributors.”

The Senate, more often than not, confirms the governor’s regent appointments. But, in 2013, a Democratic-majority Senate turned down two of Branstad’s picks — Craig Lang, who was being reappointed after six years, and Robert Cramer.

With the board recently coming under fire for several issues — including its search for a new UI president and a proposal to change the way it funds the universities — Dvorsky said he wants to make sure any new member understands and values the unique nature of each institution and cares broadly about higher education in the state.

“With the Board of Regents, we really do have to look at them closely,” he said.

Upon her resignation last month, Andringa said she “underestimated the time required to fully serve in this role,” and Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said he hopes Richards understands the level of committee needed to be a regent.

“This job takes a lot of time,” Bolkcom said.

He said Richards’ financial support of the governor “probably doesn’t hurt in terms of getting the appointment.” But, Bolkcom added, these appointments tend to go to people involved on the political side of the governor in office.

“If people want different kinds of appointments, we need a different governor,” he said.

Although regents — following the traditional appointment schedule — are supposed to be confirmed before they begin serving, Bolkcom said these upcoming months of interim service for Richards will provide lawmakers more information.

“He’ll have a track record,” Bolkcom said. “We’ll get a sense of what he brings to his position on the board.”

Typically, he said, regent appointees tell lawmakers about their ideals and plans and their subsequent action on the board either “corresponds with what they said or something else.”

“If issues develop around (Richards’) service on the board, we’ll have an opportunity to evaluate that when we appoint him in the spring,” Bolkcom said.

As for Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, he has no concerns about Richards’ past political leanings and involvement.

“I will look at his knowledge, skills, and abilities,” Danielson said. “I want a regent who understands that the University of Northern Iowa has to get a greater share of the resources over the years in order to shore up their budget.”

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