Before Iowa State University President Steven Leath bought land in Iowa through Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter’ Summit Agricultural Group, he reached out to regent Larry McKibben for help finding timber and farm property.
McKibben, who practices agricultural and real estate law among other areas, said he rounded up a few opportunities for Leath around Marshall County, the region he represents.
“They had some, they looked at them, they didn’t work out,” McKibben said.
So earlier this month when he read a Des Moines Register report that Leath’s family had bought 145 acres of land through Rastetter’s Summit Agricultural Group for $623,000, McKibben said, “I was really really pleased.”
“Pleased that the process was there and that they wanted to live here and again be in an area of trees and water and grass lands and hunting and fishing,” he said, turning to Rastetter. “So thank you for your support in making that happen.”
According to the Register report, Summit President Eric Peterson said Leath and his wife approached the company last year in hopes of finding Iowa property for recreational purposes. Summit identified parcels in Hardin County, and the company bought a 215-acre plot for $1.14 million.
Summit then sold 89 acres of timber and 56 acres of farmland to SLS Holdings, a corporation created by Leath’s family in November. Peterson reported that Leath paid the same price Summit bought it for $2,140 an acre of timber, according to the news reports.
Summit and SLS Holdings split the closing costs and fees, according to Peterson.
Leath told The Register the deal was a personal matter and not improper. But critics have called the sale another indication Leath has “cozy personal relationship” with Rastetter, creating “the appearance of something funny going on.”
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But McKibben on Monday said the transaction was handled “exactly the way a real estate attorney would have handled the transaction.”
“Everything was transparent here,” he said. “It was handled exactly right … and I am really pleased that up the road about 35 miles from my house he’s going to be in Hardin County and stay for a good long time after he’s led this agricultural university to great things.”
Rastetter also defended the deal on Monday, saying the regents’ relationships go behind formal meetings and business discussions.
“When we meet with the presidents, we don’t just say, ‘Hey, how’s your budget doing?’” he said. “We say, ‘How’s your family doing? What do you do enjoy doing? How are your kids doing? How’s your wife doing? How she’s acclimating herself to Ames, Iowa or Iowa City, Iowa or to Cedar Falls?”
Rastetter said Summit Ag employees several ISU graduates, and they have been hunting with Leath and met over lunch. The land deal in question originated with one of those encounters.
“I think it’s a good thing that Steve Leath hunts with those guys, has a good relationship, and he serves as a great role model for them,” Rastetter said.
And, he said, he’s glad that Leath and his wife “want to stay in Iowa.”
“This is a good thing that our people at Summit did and Steve and Janet have deeper roots in Iowa, and it’s a positive” he said.
Both Iowa State and the board have conflict of interest policies. Iowa State indicates conflicts exist when employees “could be influenced by considerations of personal gain, usually of a financial nature, as a result of interests outside his/her university responsibilities.”
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Board policy requires officials to “avoid actual or apparent conflicts of interest involving personal and professional relationships.”