They’re playing a game at our expense



All roads lead to Joel Brinkmeyer and Doug Gross. That’s why Tom Cullen trundled up Hwy. 71 on Thursday to Okoboji, in search of the elusive pair who control much of the public policy debate around agriculture and the environment these days. I would have paid money to see them try to ditch him, and then the gangly reporter trudges out to Hole 14 in his clodhoppers to find Brinkmeyer in shorts.

We were told Gross was there but he must have eluded us.

It was the annual golf outing for the Agribusiness Association of Iowa. And, you could say, for the cabal that is running this state: Monsanto, Dow-DuPont and Koch Fertilizer.

They own the Republican political establishment. They shower it with dark money run through PACs. Even the Democrats stand in fear of them: “Will the corn growers go along on this one?” they ask the nice lobbyist. “If not, I can’t go near it. You understand.”

We went to ask, once again, as we have of the supervisors, their lawyers, Gross and Brinkmeyer:

Just who is behind the $1 million in dark money that was used to finance the legal defense of Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties from a river pollution lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works?

Doug Gross, Des Moines Republican power broker attorney and former chief of staff to Gov. Terry Branstad, set up the fund for AAI. Brinkmeyer is executive director.

That’s confidential, Brinkmeyer said after Tom interrupted his tee-off.

Tom asked him about the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council. Brinkmeyer is CEO. Gross is a board member. The staff comes from AAI. INREC has received more than $1 million in state funding. We asked if any of that funding went to the Ag Legal Defense Fund.

That’s confidential, Brinkmeyer said.

We asked about Gross’ involvement. That’s confidential, too.

When Gross talks to Sac County Drainage Attorney Colin McCullough, what do they talk about? How to keep Crowell and Moring of Washington, DC, on the payroll at $360,000 for a few months work?

Crowell and Moring quit after the counties’ own law firm, Belin McCormick of Des Moines, may have advised the board that The Storm Lake Times’ request to identify the donors to the dark-money Ag Legal Defense Fund complies with the Iowa Public Records Law. Those donors are paying our counties’ legal bills. We would like to know who they are. We already know that AAI officials met with the chief executives of Monsanto and Koch Fertilizer in July of 2015 to discuss formation of the Ag Legal Defense Fund. But nobody will publicly admit that they gave to the fund.


Because it could be embarrassing when you pull back the curtain and see the money grubbers scatter.

Iowa State University’s life science programs are wholly-owned subsidiaries of agri-industry. Monsanto endows ISU professors who have huge labs operating in China. Dow DuPont through Pioneer long has funded much of the basic ag research and extension at ISU, the cultural and business center for agriculture in this state.

Ag College Dean Wendy Wintersteen sits on the AAI board as an ex-officio member, as does ISU executive Dr. John Lawrence, a highly esteemed livestock economist who has been elevated to the holy order of fundraisers. Lawrence also serves on the board with Gross for the Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council.

Iowa State President Steve Leath is trading land with Iowa Board of Regents Chairman Bruce Rastetter, who has made a fortune in ethanol and by failing in pork production.

All these people are motivated by money.

Leath, Lawrence and Wintersteen depend on the AAI boys — the seed companies, the chemical companies, the vertical integrators buying and selling each other over lunch or golf — to keep ISU at the forefront of corporate agribusiness. It’s not as if the Practical Farmers of Iowa will help them buy that dream getaway in the woods. The corporate interests who peddle the nitrogen fund the professors, the endowed chairs, the new labs, even the football program. Leath fended off the Harkin Institute’s proposed home on campus when he was told by Rastetter that his institution would speak with one voice on agriculture, and Tom Harkin’s was not that voice. (Harkin happily landed at Drake University in Des Moines.)

The agri-gators make their money by spreading their products over more acres. A 10% acreage set aside messes with the program. So does cattle on pasture near the Raccoon. So they don’t want anything that messes with their business model or reduces their potential market. Every acre lost to grass makes Roundup sales one acre less efficient.

Along comes this lawsuit.

The first thing they do is hire Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, a Republican who wants to be governor, and former Ag Secretary Patty Judge, a Democrat who wants in vain to unseat Sen. Chuck Grassley, to form the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water. Doug Gross is there. We understand that hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on TV ads trashing the water works and its staff.

Then they get Gov. Terry Branstad and US Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack to appear together to convince legislators to form a multi-billion-dollar water quality fund that would throw money at production agriculture. It will take a lot of time to figure out if bioreactors work, and it will take a lot of money to make them — so much that people will just want to give up at the thought of it. Who got those two together on something so frivolous? Who suggested that they not first consult Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, the most powerful Democrat in the state?

A huge pool of dark money forms within weeks. The counties are told by Gross and Brinkmeyer to dig in their heels. They’re paying the bills, so the BV County Board of Supervisors tells BV County Attorney Dave Patton to stop trying to arrange a settlement discussion with the water works CEO. Patton, who cannot bill the county, walked away as ordered.

Brinkmeyer did tell us, a year after we first tried to ask him, that AAI will not give any more money to the counties so long as we insist on knowing who the donors are.

Belin has racked up another $300,000 (at last count) and reportedly is comfortable while its bills go unpaid. The counties and AAI have been trying to figure out a way to start dancing again. You just know Doug Gross is in the middle of that conversation. And he must be billing.

Meantime, only two leading Iowa politicians have called for a mediated settlement of this lawsuit that includes keeping producers whole and sets benchmarks for Clean Water Act compliance: Former Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (see above) and Majority Leader Gronstal — and those statements were made only in The Storm Lake Times. Gronstal has called for a summit in Storm Lake after the November election with the parties at contest (the water works and the counties) to arrive at a political and legal settlement. It is the only sensible answer, beyond gambling with what a federal judge might rule.

The agri-gators will do everything in their power to stop it.

This case is headed for federal trial in 14 months. It will be tied up in appeals for years. It will be funded by dark money, just as Congress is funded by dark money. The agri-industrialists hope their long game will find them in the green. Brinkeyer and Gross already are there.