Lawmaker questions ISU settlement secrecy

Des Moines Register

An Iowa lawmaker is questioning the legality of $1 million in confidential settlements paid to former directors of the Iowa State Foundation.

“Here we go again,” said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls, who is drafting legislation to require greater transparency from Iowa’s three state universities. “If it’s a public institution, it needs transparency in order for the public to meaningfully judge the work they do. This is not rocket science.”

The confidential settlements in question involve former foundation director Dan Saftig, who was paid $35,000 a month for 1 ½ years following his sudden departure from the foundation in 2012. Less than three years later, his replacement, Roger Neuhaus, was for a year paid $28,125 a month when his employment also ended without explanation.

Saftig was additionally allowed to keep an unspecified foundation-owned vehicle and was paid up to $10,000 for a search firm to help him find a new job and up to $7,500 in attorney’s fees, his confidential agreement shows. The settlements, which include additional payments for health insurance and to retirement plans, were first reported by CityView.

Both Saftig and Neuhaus declined to discuss the matter. Their separation agreements prohibit them from making disparaging or detrimental statements about their former employer.

Danielson, who referred to the confidentiality agreements as a “gag order,” believes the agreement involving Neuhaus violates Gov. Terry Branstad’s 2014 executive order prohibiting so-called “secret settlements” by state government and Iowa Board of Regent agencies.

Branstad believes the ISU Foundation is a separate legal entity and not subject to his executive order, spokesman Ben Hammes said, who then referred questions to the Regents. Regents spokesman Josh Lehman called the issue a “foundation personnel matter” and not one governed by his department.

Danielson disagrees, but he said that even if he’s wrong, the foundation should be made to uphold the same level of transparency as state agencies.

The Register requested the separation agreements as part of an ongoing review behind the purchase of two university planes, one of which was involved in a 2015 crash piloted by ISU President Steven Leath.

The plane piloted by Leath, a $470,000 a single-engine Cirrus SR22, was purchased by the university without approval by the Regents. Officials say that approval was unnecessary because it didn’t meet a $1 million threshold that would require approval.

The other plane — a nearly $2.9 million double-engine Beechcraft King Air — was acquired in December 2013 via verbal approvals from Neuhaus and Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard using the foundation’s “discretionary funds,” according to information from Karen Simon of the foundation.

The individual members of the foundation’s board nor the Iowa Board of Regents were notified of that purchase, either. Simon and ISU spokeswoman Megan Landolt maintain the purchases were proper, pointing to a Board of Regents Oct. 20 internal audit about the matter.

The newly disclosed documents don’t reveal whether Saftig or Neuhaus’ departures were linked to the ongoing questions about plane usage and foundation purchases.