Who pays the wizard?

As Tom Cullen reports today, the man behind the curtain pulling the levers for agri-industry in the Des Moines Water Works case is our long-time cordial acquaintance Doug Gross. He is a lawyer, a deal-maker, a former chief of staff to Gov. Terry Branstad, a king maker and a judge vetter. When our man asked Gross straight up what he thought of our request to cough up records about who is paying for the defendant counties’ legal bills, Gross chortled at the notion that they are public.

“A lot of people pretend to practice law,” Gross retorted.

By that we take it to mean our humble selves and our friend Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, who has written a couple letters to county officials that sound as if a lawyer wrote them, citing case law and the like. Evans is a retired reporter and editor at The Des Moines Register who may have given some barroom advice over the years, but no, he is not a lawyer. But he knows some pretty good ones. So do we. In fact, we spoke with some real, live lawyers, including a smart one from Kansas City on Monday, and pretty smart lawyers right here in Storm Lake. They might not be kingmakers, but they are lawyers.

And all of these lawyers tell us one clear thing:

That the Agribusiness Association of Iowa’s Agriculture Legal Defense Fund is acting as an agent of Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties by paying the bills for law firms in Des Moines and Washington, DC, hired by the counties to defend them in federal district court against the water works claim that drainage districts are subject to the Clean Water Act. The fund is soliciting and paying out money, at the counties’ request, to pay the two law firms. One of the firms has withdrawn from the case because we keep asking for their billing records.

The county supervisors have asked the law firms to release their records and who is paying them.

The AAI has said that the donor information is not a public record because this is a non-profit, private organization. Some donors have revealed themselves as standing up for Iowa agribusiness: the Farm Bureau, and the corn and soybean associations. They want their members to know how their dues are being used.

Other donors are more circumspect. We believe they include agribusiness’ biggest corporate players like Monsanto and Koch Fertilizer. We have no idea why they would fear sunshine other than that they believe they don’t have to be exposed to it.

But we do believe, based on what real live lawyers are telling us, that there is established case law on point: that the Iowa State University Foundation was forced by the Iowa Supreme Court to release its donor list because it was effectively an extension of Iowa State University, a public institution. The same can be said about AAI and its involvement with the counties.

On the outside chance that we are right, the counties must compel Doug Gross and AAI to produce the records with all the relevant information we have requested, including who is paying the Belin McCormick Law Firm in Des Moines and Crowell & Moring of Washington, DC, and how much.

If the counties do not produce the records, the county supervisors who effectuated the agreements in question could be held personally liable to pay attorney fees associated with compelling the records’ discovery. It won’t be that much, since our lawyers do not charge as much as Doug Gross or those real lawyers in DC who may have never seen a drainage tile.

To use a barnyard euphemism, every once in awhile even a blind pig finds a nut. We are not so polished, but our snout smells something that is being hidden. We can’t see very well right now. But we can smell it.

It would appear that Crowell & Moring quit the case recently because it wanted nothing to do with this public records request. It is unclear to us how a law firm can quit a case without its client’s assent. Nobody from Buena Vista County fired Crowell & Moring. They quit. They do not return our phone calls. Nobody will tell us why they quit, but we know why. Who could instruct Crowell & Moring to withdraw? If not the counties, then Doug Gross, perhaps? He said he is directing the legal business for AAI. If so, where would he draw that authority to release Crowell & Moring from their obligation to provide counsel once engaged? From the check writers who do not want their cover blown. If this records case persists, the entire county defense strategy could be returned to where it belongs: in the capable hands of Buena Vista County Drainage Attorney Gary Armstrong and County Attorney Dave Patton. They are real lawyers, too. Bona fide.