U of I secrecy, Strawn contracts need scrutiny

This editorial appeared in The Des Moines Register on Dec. 16, 2015.

Oh, the irony.

The University of Iowa has hired a company to conduct polling for the school in an effort to improve its image.

But now it turns out the polling is being handled by a top GOP consultant through a series of no-bid contracts, and the school is refusing to release the results of the polling because, it says, disclosure would “serve no public purpose.”

The university has a long, established history of behaving as if it were a private school, accountable to no one. But this takes the school’s penchant for cronyism and secrecy to a whole new level.

As the Associated Press’ Ryan Foley reported recently, the university has awarded no-bid contracts worth almost $322,000 to a company run by former Iowa Republican Party chairman Matt Strawn. Iowa law requires that public entities seek bids for good and services costing more than $25,000.

But no bids were collected on the work tied to Strawn’s first contract, which was issued in the spring of 2013 for “online and grassroots advocacy.” The contract called for the school to pay Strawn $24,900 — a price that was clearly established to skirt the $25,000 threshold for bidding.

Months later, the school commissioned Strawn to conduct statewide polling and focus-group research, and obtained a waiver for the bidding process by claiming that “no other vendor” in Iowa could do that sort of work — a blatant fabrication.

In fact, Strawn had to subcontract with other firms to assist with both the advocacy and the polling. Those other companies, by the way, also have strong ties to the GOP: One was founded by Jim Anderson, the former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party, and the other is a prominent Republican pollster based in Texas.

Why would a state university hand out contacts in this manner to politically connected individuals? Is it because the contracts are managed by the school’s vice president for external relations, Peter Matthes, who is a former Iowa Senate Republican Caucus staff director? Or is it simply poor management, with no favoritism involved?

Hard to say. But what’s really alarming about all this is the university’s refusal to make public the poll’s findings. The school justifies the secrecy by pointing to an exemption in the state’s Open Records Law for documents that if disclosed would give an advantage to Strawn’s competitors and also would “serve no public purpose.”

That argument doesn’t hold water. The school claimed that the polling contracts weren’t put up for bids because there was “no other vendor” who could possibly do this sort of work. So how can it now claim that Strawn and his pals will be put at a competitive disadvantage if the results of their work are made public?

“It’s their copyrighted report,” says UI general counsel Carroll Reasoner. “The information in it could be used by competitors of them, using their protocol for polling — and also by competitors of the university as we seek out students to come to the university and figure out how we want to message ourselves to students and parents.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, if the polling served a legitimate public purpose, then the results of that polling — which would simply reveal the school’s perceived strengths and weaknesses — must also be in the public interest. The argument for keeping this information confidential is simply a legal fiction that has been sloppily constructed on other, conflicting fabrications of the school’s own creation.

UI President Bruce Harreld, who is struggling to win the confidence of Iowans and the school’s own faculty, should make the polling results public today, and the Iowa Board of Regents should agree to examine the Strawn contracts and the manner in which they were awarded.

If Harreld and the regents refuse to act, the matter should be brought before the Iowa Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee for public hearings on the matter.