DES MOINES -- A judge sided with the Iowa Board of Regents in a ruling issued Monday, saying members did not violate open meetings laws when recruiting businessman Bruce Harreld to become the University of Iowa president.
The ruling granting summary judgment to the board comes a week before the case was set to go to trial. A former UI employee who brought the suit plans to appeal.
In his ruling, Polk County District Court Judge William Kelly found that “there are no disputed facts that are material to the specific legal issue before the court” — whether former regents President Bruce Rastetter and four colleagues violated the law.
“It may have looked problematic in the way Rastetter organized the recruitment of Bruce Harreld, but ultimately, the board lacked the numbers needed for a meeting throughout the recruitment process, and no evidence exists that they deliberated or acted under the statute,” the judge found.
The challenge, filed by former UI employee Gerhild Krapf, is not over, according to her attorney, Gary Dickey. He said his client has filed a notice of appeal and they’re “confident that the District Court’s ruling will be reversed.”
Regents unanimously voted to reject three other finalists and hire Harreld, a former IBM executive, in September 2015 to replace former UI President Sally Mason, who had retired.
Krapf’s lawsuit accuses five the nine regents on the board in July 2015 of violating the law intended to ensure government transparency.
The suit named Rastetter, former board President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland, former Regent Mary Andringa and current board members Milt Dakovich and Larry McKibben. The suit asserted that the five held “serial submajority gatherings” that constituted a quorum because of their “temporal proximity to each other.”
In a deposition, Rastetter told how small groups of regents met in short order privately with Harreld.
“When I asked him why these were staged in meetings with two regents at a time, he specifically acknowledges a worry about the requirements of Chapter 21,” Dickey said.
But defense attorney Richard Sapp said the regents never met the quorum threshold; Rastetter didn’t meet with any of the other regents; and none of the board members deliberated on any matters that day.
He called the allegations “legal fantasy.”
“Saying part of the reason we set it up this way was to comply with the law is hardly a reason for criticism of a public official in this day and age,” Sapp said.
In his ruling, Kelly addressed “different theories” the plaintiff had offered for how the regents violated open meetings laws. He concluded that “based on current Iowa law, as it is written now, all of these arguments legally fail.”
A second lawsuit over Harreld’s hiring — accusing the university’s presidential search committee of violating meetings laws — remains set for trial in November 2018. That suit accuses the committee of, among other things, holding off-site interviews with semifinalists at a location outside Iowa and at a time not reasonably accessible to the public, and of inappropriately holding closed meetings.