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Civic Skinny

Knapp, Cownie and Rastetter gave big in 2013. Zaun, once a deadbeat, says U.S. should pay bills.


How much money do big hitters give to state candidates in a year? Last year — not an election year for statewide candidates — Jim Cownie gave $89,850, Bill Knapp gave $78,900 and Bruce Rastetter gave $71,150.32, according to newly released figures from the Iowa Campaign and Ethics Commission. This does not include contributions to men and women running for Congress.

Cownie is a moderate Republican, and his gifts ranged from $100 to Connie Boesen, who was running for the Des Moines School Board, to $40,000 to Gov. Terry Branstad, who was amassing a war chest of more than $4 million. The contributions by Knapp, a Democrat, ranged from $200 to some suburban council candidates to $20,000 to his new pal Branstad and $25,000 to Kevin McCarthy, who late in the year resigned his post as Minority Leader in the Iowa House to join the staff of Attorney General Tom Miller. (McCarthy had a kitty of $94,000 during 2013, but turned around and gave $46,000 of that to the Iowa Democratic Party. At the end of the year, his campaign statement showed just $3,380 in cash.)

Rastetter, the head of the Board of Regents, gave gifts ranging from $500 to “friends of Jake Highfill” to $49,552.96 to Branstad. Rastetter, who has had big holdings in agriculture businesses, also gave $10,000 to Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and $10,000 to Iowa House Speaker Kraig Paulsen. …

A guy who is an online-only subscriber to The Des Moines Register says he got an offer in the mail last week for free home delivery of the Sunday Register. “Ironically,” he says, “print subscribers have complained about paying for the online version whether they want it or not; now, online subscribers might be getting the print version whether they want it or not.” …

Patch, the nationwide collection of neighborhood news organizations, laid off hundreds of people last week as it struggles to survive. One of those laid off: central Iowa journalist Beth Dalbey. Dalbey, who has worked several places in the Greater Des Moines area, posted about her firing on Facebook.


“Journalism ain’t for sissies,” she said. “Today’s a tough day for me and some of my Patch colleagues. Many of us were laid off as Patch continues restructuring.” She said she wishes Patch “only the best” and says she has “no regrets as I move forward to the next chapter in my life.” What is that chapter? “I’m not sure.” …

On WHO the other day, Congressional candidate Brad Zaun said that if he were elected — which is a big if — he’d vote against raising the debt ceiling. “We have to pay our bills,” he said, according to a tweet from WHO host Simon Conway.

That’s apparently a concept fairly new to Zaun. You remember, of course, but in case you don’t, here are a couple of paragraphs from Civic Skinny of Aug. 19, 2010:

“According to Polk County District Court records, Republican Zaun ignored for years — until he decided to run for Congress — bills for $1,070.77 from Iowa Health Des Moines and $50.66 from Radiology PC. He was sued in March of 2005 and failed to appear in court or answer the complaint. Judgment was entered against him in May of that year.

“He continued to ignore the bills and the judgment against him, and in February 2006 the court ordered the Polk County sheriff to garnish money in Zaun’s account at Liberty Bank in Des Moines. But it wasn’t until last Nov. 17 — four-and-a-half years after judgment was entered against him — that the court entered a ‘release and satisfaction of judgment’ order indicating that the judgment, the interest and all costs had been paid.

“Two weeks later, the Urbandale legislator announced he would run for Congress. He won a seven-way primary and now faces incumbent Democrat Leonard Boswell. ‘I’ll take the same principles of fiscal responsibility…that I’ve lived by…to Washington,’ he told The Des Moines Register last December. He didn’t say whether those principles included being a deadbeat.” CV



Denise Stillman, the Chicago-area businesswoman who wants to use a lot of state money to turn the fabled Field of Dreams in Dyersville into a youth sports complex, takes issue with a three-paragraph Cityview item in mid-December pointing out that the project isn’t going very well.

Cityview noted that the project has been scaled back dramatically from its original plan for 24 fields and training facilities and dorms and the like, that Dyersville voters threw out the pro-Field mayor and a couple of council members in November, that Stillman is having a hard time raising money, that there is very little Stillman money in the $38 million project, and that the plan has been plagued by lawsuits.

 “I would have hoped you would have done a little more research prior to publishing” the item, Stillman wrote.

So I have. It’s worse than I wrote.

Stillman wrote that the Field of Dreams project “was NEVER the focus…of newly elected council members’ campaign platforms.” But defeated Mayor Jim Heavens told the Dubuque newspaper that the vote was “a referendum on the Field of Dreams project,” and he told the paper that the vote meant the project was dead. The extremely high 40 percent turnout and the defeat of all incumbents who supported the project certainly can be interpreted as an indication of widespread interest in the issue.

Stillman wrote that it is “far from factual” that the project has “very little Stillman money in it,” though she wouldn’t say how much she had invested. In fact, when I visited with Stillman two years ago as she was lobbying the legislature, she said her family had $250,000 in the project, about two-thirds of one percent of the total. A “confidential information memorandum” dated Feb. 1, 2013, indicates the Stillmans signed a note for $6 million — but it’s a note, not an investment. In a letter to Stillman on Dec. 26, I wrote that “if you have invested the $6 million — that it is no longer a note receivable or a loan, but that it is actually at-risk equity — Cityview will run a correction.” Stillman did not reply to the letter.

Further, a check of land records in Dubuque County shows that the Stillman project — officially Go the Distance Baseball LLC — is buying the property on an installment contract, paying the main seller of the largest parcel $600,000 down and $32,070.77 a month until the end of 2017, when the balance is payable. So, to date, Go the Distance Baseball has about $1 million invested in that land. (Land records also indicate the installment contract has been assigned by the sellers — Donald and Rebecca Lansing — as security to Fidelity Bank and Trust of Dyersville, which is owed around $1 million by the Lansings and their corporations.) Records also indicate the Stillman companies do not have title to some of the other parcels they are buying.

Stories about the Field of Dreams project constantly note that former Major League baseball player Wade Boggs is an investor. In fact, though, the memorandum of a year ago refers to a “Boggs note” of $500,000, indicating he in fact has no money in the project, at least not yet.

Cityview also noted that Stillman turned to “crowd-funding” in hopes of raising $950,000 in the month ending Dec. 19. That produced just $1,695. In her letter, Stillman said the “crowdfunding idea was a way to build more excitement for the project. We were under no illusion that we could fund the project or even a significant piece, but this is a fun way for those without the capacity to invest in our project to ‘be a part of it.’ “

Perhaps, but at its core crowdfunding is done to raise money, and the crowdfunding page indeed suggests that was the idea. “Funds are needed to finish our design and construction plans,” it said. Irrespective of the motive, a response of $1,695 against a goal of $950,000 hardly indicates overwhelming financial support or excitement.

“With any project of this magnitude, there inevitably are hurdles and speed bumps,” Stillman wrote. That is true. But the hurdles involving lawsuits against 25 or so neighbors and townsfolk by an organization trying to move to town, especially when for libel, look unusually high. And while each side has dropped a lawsuit, the Iowa Court of Appeals recently ruled that a citizens’ group’s lawsuit against the city council, alleging zoning irregularities for the property, can proceed. That is more than a speed bump.

An even higher hurdle is the agreement with the state. In 2012, the legislature passed a bill allowing the state to rebate up to $16.5 million in sales taxes collected by Field of Dreams between Jan. 1, 2014 and Jan. 2, 2024 — an amount equal to 45 percent of the projected cost of $38 million. However, to collect the rebates the construction on the facility and site must have started by July 1, 2013. A lawsuit Go the Distance Baseball filed against some Dyersville residents on Oct. 12, 2012, states that because of the disputes Field of Dreams “has an inability to begin construction in time to preserve [its] rights in the Sales Tax Rebate, which, in turn, will result in the loss of the Sales Tax Rebate.” In fact, construction does not appear to have begun.

A spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Revenue says the department won’t look into whether Field of Dreams has complied with the legislation “until we get a refund claim.” “Then,” she says, “we audit to see if they meet the criteria for eligibility.”

So far, says a man who keeps tabs on the project, “all the developers have done is erect a multi-yard silt fence next to a creek that runs through that land.” He adds: “It’s doubtful that anything will ever be built there.”

At the very least, it doesn’t look good. CV

— Michael Gartner

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