Education

Iowa State to pay back former Reiman Gardens director Teresa McLaughlin after it had alleged wrongdoing

Settlement is 'full exoneration': former director

People walk around Reiman Gardens in Ames in this 2015 photo. (The Gazette)
People walk around Reiman Gardens in Ames in this 2015 photo. (The Gazette)

After years spent battling its former Reiman Gardens director over her handling of exhibits featuring nature-inspired LEGO sculptures, Iowa State University has agreed to pay Teresa McLaughlin $225,000 for unpaid wages.

In dismissing its claims against McLaughlin — who directed the university’s popular 17-acre Reiman Gardens from 1999 to 2015 — Iowa State also is providing health insurance benefits, covering attorney fees and installing a bench to commemorate McLaughlin’s 17 years of service, according to a statement from the former director.

McLaughlin characterized the settlement as “full exoneration.”

As part of the settlement, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen wrote McLaughlin a letter of recommendation, and administrators returned other commendations to her personnel file, according to McLaughlin and her attorney.

Iowa State said the settlement notes neither side admits wrongdoing.

The dispute had its roots in an Iowa State-conceived show called “Nature Connects,” which collaborated with New York-based artist Sean Kenney on nature-inspired LEGO sculptures. The first show in 2012 featured 27 sculptures and was marketed to public gardens, zoos and other venues across the country and world.

Its popularity spawned subsequent contracts with Kenney, and McLaughlin eventually added director of Nature Connects to her title, putting herself in charge of marketing the shows, negotiating and entering contracts with outside venues, and managing Iowa State’s relationship with Kenney, according to the university’s legal claims.

As that relationship developed, Iowa State accused McLaughlin of crossing conflict-of-interest lines, listing herself as an employee for Sean Kenney Design Inc. and taking actions that benefited his bottom line and harmed Iowa State.

“As an employee with substantial responsibility and discretion, and to whom a high degree of confidence was entrusted, McLaughlin owed a fiduciary duty to ISU to avoid direct competition, misappropriation of profits, property or business opportunities, trade secrets and other confidences,” according to the Iowa State claim.

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McLaughlin, an Iowa State graduate, said those allegations are false and the university for years has had access to evidence substantiating that on their own servers.

She also touted the growth and prestige the Gardens achieved on her watch, as it sat as a four-acre summer-only garden when she started.

In her 17 years of leadership, the Gardens budget swelled from $500,000 to $2.5 million; membership surged from 200 to 2,800 families; and staffing jumped from four in 1998 to 250 volunteers, 18 staffers, and other part-time and student workers.

When McLaughlin left, the Gardens endowment reported more than $5 million, with spendable accounts at $1.5 million in the black — overcoming a $1 million deficit when she began as director, according to her attorney.

Since her retirement, according to McLaughlin, the Gardens have lost more than $1.5 million in lease sales, along with a second potential LEGO builder contract, estimated to be worth $8 million.

Iowa State didn’t response to questions seeking to confirm that information.

“The university is glad the dispute was resolved, and is eager to see Reiman Gardens continue to move forward as one of the finest and most beautiful gardens in the country,” according to the ISU statement Monday.

McLaughlin said the university also offered to host a dinner for her at the ISU presidential home.

In ISU President Wendy Wintersteen’s recommendation letter — dated June 28, after the settlement was reached — she praised McLaughlin for being instrumental in “many successful Reiman Gardens initiatives and programs.”

“Reiman Gardens grew substantially under her leadership in virtually every measurable way, including revenue, geographic size, employees, fundraising, budget, facilities and membership,” Wintersteen wrote. “Teresa’s energy and vision were an important part of that growth and led Reiman Gardens to the position it is in today as one of the finest and most unique public gardens in the country.”

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Wintersteen in her letter notes she’s known McLaughlin for almost half the 40-plus years she’s been affiliated with Iowa State and considers her a “longtime friend and professional colleague.”

Because of that history, McLaughlin said she expected a settlement would come sooner — once Wintersteen took over as ISU president in 2017.

“But it, in fact, did not,” she said.

In Wintersteen’s letter, she writes of McLaughlin’s character, calling her “an honest, hardworking, and forthright person who took her responsibilities seriously and showed tremendous creativity and energy.”

“I greatly enjoyed my interactions with her, and have no doubt but that she would be a valuable asset for any new employer.”

• Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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