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Editorial: University of Iowa stinks of cronyism

Editorial: University of Iowa stinks of cronyism

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Dedication Ceremony for the Mary Louise Petersen Residence Hall on The University of Iowa campus Tuesday, July 21, 2015. The new building also houses the Theodore M. Rehder Residential Learning Commons, six Living-Learning Communities and 252 student rooms.

Clarification: The following editorial was updated to better reflect that the money in question was raised through private donations. 

Cronyism and political patronage bear a distinctive stench. And the University of Iowa's odor is wafting across the state.

Politically connected university administrators, in 2013, pulled an end-run on the Board of Regents, doling out no-bid contracts for polling and "grassroots advocacy" to a firm owned by former state GOP Chairman Matt Strawn, says a recent Associated Press investigation. More than $320,000 in university funds have since poured into Strawn's firm and associated, GOP-controlled businesses. And the propaganda campaign falls under UI's vice president of external relations Peter Matthes, who just so happened to work for the state Senate Republican caucus during Strawn's tenure as party chairman.

Even the method of doling out the cash hits the nostrils with an ugly funk. The initial $24,900 handout fell a cool $100 below the threshold to require the services to go out to bid. Once up and running, the scheme became a cash-cow for Strawn. And, after everything, the university is throttling transparency and refusing to release Strawn's polling data.

As if this bit of putrid meat wasn't rank enough, state Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter, this week, told Iowa Public Radio that he was in the dark about the sweetheart deal all along.

Rastetter correctly asserts that the deal should have been sent out to bid in the first place. But the situation exposes a fatal flaw in the bidding process, which, in this case, failed to protect taxpayers and students from some good-old boy backslapping.

Strawn's non-competitive selection had nothing to do with political favoritism, parroted university spokeswoman Jeneane Beck. His firm "provided better communication options across multiple platforms," she said. 

For all of their attempts, university officials can't bury this fiasco in jargon. 

Clearly, the Board of Regents should overhaul bidding thresholds. A system that permits unceasing extensions of a one-time deal -- particularly one clearly designed to circumvent transparency -- shouldn't exist.

Lower the limit -- $10,000 sounds about right. Release the information gathered under the deal. And, while they're at it, board members should pursue more rigorous external auditing. 

Simply patching the now-exposed shortcomings aren't enough. This deal stinks. 

Every administrator with knowledge of the Strawn deal should be investigated. Anyone who willfully dispensed taxpayer funds like candy should be given a one-way ticket to the unemployment line.

This isn't a partisan issue. We're not attacking Republicans for the sake of it. We're not taking a swipe at Gov. Terry Branstad or his political machine.

The coordinated, intentional circumvention of public accountability should raise the hackles of every Iowan, regardless of political stripe. The potential use of public funds to reward partisans should anger each and every taxpayer. And the university's half-baked excuses to flout the state Freedom of Information Act serves only to keep this farce rolling along.

Something reeks in Iowa City. The funk won't lift until University of Iowa comes clean. 

Local editorials represent the opinion of the Quad-City Times editorial board, which consists of Publisher Deb Anselm, Executive Editor Autumn Phillips, Editorial Page Editor Jon Alexander, Associate Editor Bill Wundram, Account Executive John Blunk, City Editor Dan Bowerman and community representative John Wetzel.


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