They don’t know

By ART CULLEN

You have to wonder if Buena Vista County Supervisors ever have a twinge of regret or shame when they cash a paycheck. Because, to hear them tell it, they don’t know who is paying for their awfully expensive defense of a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works. About $1 million in invoices were paid to Des Moines and Washington, DC, law firms until March, and the supervisors claim not to know who gave them the money. That’s stunning. The Agribusiness Association of Iowa organized a fund that paid those bills, but it reportedly refuses to tell the counties who the donors were. The supervisors believe that they cannot look a gift horse in the mouth to see who planted the bit.

We have just learned that the supervisors, not AAI, severed their relationship in April because we wanted to know who those donors were. Monsanto and Koch Fertilizer executives met with AAI when the fund was formed. Who else chipped in? AAI won’t say. Des Moines lawyer Doug Gross, who designed the secret fund, won’t respond to our questions. The supervisors are too timid to ask in an effective way. They appear to believe that this is a moot point since the relationship was severed over transparency issues. We believe it is a continuing offense against the Iowa Public Records Law and precedent set by the Iowa Supreme Court. The supervisors are fully aware of our opinion — they paid lawyers hundreds of dollars an hour to read our editorials on the matter as if they were court briefs, using funds raised from secret donors.

Yet they do not answer the basic question, claiming ignorance.

We recently asked how much the Belin Law Firm has billed since the relationship was severed with AAI and Doug Gross. Supervisors told us they didn’t know. We asked who is paying the bills. Supervisors said they didn’t know. This is the company line. Eventually, BV County Drainage Attorney Gary Armstrong informed us that Belin has piled up about $300,000 in legal fees since March that remain unpaid until funds appear. This is at least a $100,000 liability to Buena Vista County, as it presumably will share that tab with Calhoun and Sac counties — but we actually do not know, so secret the public officials are.

We have asked, repeatedly over months, how the county will cover its legal bills. The supervisors say they aren’t sure. They say they hope their “friends” still step forward. What sort of friend would leave you hanging with $300,000 in unpaid bills because they covet their anonymity?

Any CEO would be fired with that sort of response.

Of course it all begs credulity. They don’t know who is paying their bills? They don’t know how they will be paid? They don’t know what the status of negotiations with AAI to resume their funding scheme?

They should know.

Down to the penny and the period.

Either the supervisors are ignorant or coy. Neither serves the public interest.

The supervisors are paid just shy of $30,000 a year. They are paid to know the basics of who is paying for what in county government. It’s not that hard.

The supervisors will say, when they choose to speak, that this is all in the hands of competent lawyers so none of us need to worry. Including the supervisors. They can fight on with this lawsuit without having any clue what they are doing, or who is actually pulling the strings, while encumbering the county potentially with huge unpaid legal bills or, worse, hundreds of millions of dollars in liabilities from a federal district court judge’s ruling next year.

That’s what is at stake here.

Millions upon millions in BV County taxpayer liability.

It offends the supervisors that we have suggested the county should pursue settlement talks with the Des Moines Water Works to avoid a mega-judgment. Agri-industry and the state’s political leaders acknowledge that we have a big problem with stray nutrients finding their way to the rivers, and ultimately the dying Gulf of Mexico. So let’s get about solving that problem through a settlement endorsed by the state’s political leadership who can make something happen.

The people who paid the bills for Buena Vista County do not believe in settling. The Kochs and Monsanto have too much at stake to leave it to the people of Iowa to decide how to manage agriculture and a clean environment in a sustainable way that allows farmers to prosper.

The supervisors can blithely tag along for the war, savoring their victory at the top of the hill, so long as they have no skin in the fight. They don’t have to pay attention to who is paying the bills, setting the terms for the debate, whispering in the lawyers’ ears about what to do and how to do it.

They can just shrug and say, “Beats me.”

And then cash that paycheck. You could call that malfeasance.