More GOP cronyism staining UI

Some of us have friends. Some of us have friends who use their professional positions to funnel us money. Guess which kind former Republican Party of Iowa chairman Matt Strawn has.

A records request to the University of Iowa by the Associated Press found $321,900 in no-bid contracts awarded to Strawn’s consulting company. Strawn, in turn, subcontracted firms led by others with GOP ties to perform at least part of the work.

The contracts were managed by UI Vice President for External Relations Peter Matthes, a former Iowa Senate Republican Caucus staff director who served alongside Strawn.

Strawn’s company was, for instance, hired in the spring of 2013 to conduct online and grass roots advocacy. That contract totaled $24,900 — just a hundred dollars below a threshold triggering quotes from vendors. A portion was subcontracted to social media software company Wholecrowd, founded by Jim Anderson. Anderson served as RPI executive director during the 2010 campaign cycle.

The dome of the Old Capitol Building on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014.
The dome of the Old Capitol Building on the Pentacrest on campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

“Critics say the contracts with … Strawn’s namesake company … look like a sweetheart deal among Republican insiders and a potential waste of money,” AP reporter Ryan J. Foley noted. “The university sidestepped a policy that normally requires competitive bidding to ensure services are obtained at the lowest cost by claiming Strawn’s company was providing a unique service.”

At least some of the contract money funded statewide opinion polling — hardly a unique service — which the university intends to keep secret. Giving the public details of polling topics, or subsequent results, serves “no public purpose,” according to officials.

The reasoning is, of course, a Catch-22. No doubt the public would like to know if university officials were, for instance, seeking opinions on a hypothetical president with a business background. While the impetus for such a question may no longer be valid, the public has a vested interest in hearing and weighing the information sought by one of its public institutions.

It might better explain why the presidential search process, which included private meetings with members of the Board of Regents only provided to the business background candidate ultimately selected for the post, was described as “unique” by finalist Michael Bernstein, provost at Tulane University.

The Iowa Board of Regents has already spent roughly $5.4 million with Deloitte Consulting and other out-of-state contractors to conduct an efficiency review of the state’s three public universities. Before everything is complete, the state will have expended nearly $6 million on the “transparent, inclusive efficiency review.”

Although initial projections were that the three universities could save between $30 and $80 million per year through potential efficiencies, current estimates are much lower and expected to materialize much more slowly. Efficiencies in place this year, for instance, are expected to save $7 million.

On this year’s cost-saving table are commodity areas like janitorial and office supplies. Looks like AP’s investigation unearthed some more paper products the university could do without.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on December 12, 2015. Photo credit: Stephen Mally/The Gazette