Saturday, July 2, 2022

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Civic Skinny

The docket: Des Moines sues over dead trees.


At least 232 trees planted in Des Moines by Frontline Lawn and Landscapes of Pleasant Hill have died, and the company has refused to replace them, the city said last week in a lawsuit filed in Polk County District Court.

Two years ago, Frontline won a competitive bid to plant 515 trees in the fall of 2013, the lawsuit says, and it adds that the contract called for Frontline to guarantee that the trees would flourish for two seasons or else be replaced “as soon as weather permitted.” But nearly half have died, and Frontline has “repeatedly failed to meet the obligations it agreed to,” the city says.

The contract was for $115,000, city attorney Jeffrey Lester told Cityview. The city, alleging breach of contract and breach of warranty, is seeking damages to cover the value of the trees and compensation for the delay in replacement as well as “other relief as the court deems just and proper.” The city has asked for a jury trial. …

It’s the custody fight to end all custody fights, and it will be back in federal court in Des Moines next week. At least nine high-priced lawyers — from New York and Chicago and Los Angeles as well as Des Moines — are involved in the years-long battle. It’s about visitation rights and theories of upbringing and relocation plans and health and safety and love.

It’s about apes.


The central issues: Who owns the apes at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines? Who owns Maisha and Nyota and Elikya and Teco and the talented Kanzi — known in legal papers with the rockstar-like name of Maisha and the Bonobo 4. And who can control their destiny?

Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, the scientist who has more or less raised some of the bonobos but who for one reason or another (a “coup” or incompetence, depending on which legal papers you read), was removed as executive director of the Great Ape Trust nearly three years ago, says various documents give her some ownership rights in the apes and give her the right to govern the research involving them.

Two years ago, Rumbaugh and the Great Ape Trust signed settlement papers agreeing that Des Moines would be the home of the apes as long as they are involved in research — research into ape psychology, into the use of language and tools and art and music, and into ape intelligence — and as long as the Great Ape Trust existed.

Rumbaugh says that the legal entity of the Great Ape Trust no longer exists and that she now has an ownership interest in and control of Maisha and the Bonobo 4. Moreover, she says, she has found a happy home for them in Missouri, where they “could be comfortably and appropriately relocated.” She says Des Moines is no longer a good home for the bonobos because the current facility faces “financial and environmental struggles.”

Wait a minute, say lawyers for the Great Ape Trust, which is also known as the Iowa Primate Learning Center and, more recently, as the Ape Cognition and Communication Institute. If the Great Ape Trust doesn’t exist as an administrative entity, they say, it’s because of actions by Rumbaugh herself. At any rate, they argue, the trust still exists “as a matter of law.” Rumbaugh “cannot be allowed to benefit from her wrongful acts,” the Trust lawyers say.

They have no problem with the idea of joint ownership of the bonobos — between the Trust and Rumbaugh — but they feel “strongly that the joint ownership provision does not, and should not, grant Dr. Rumbaugh access to the bonobos and control over the bonobo research.” They say, in effect, she’s a bad influence on the apes.

The latest doings are a continuation of an old fight. The Great Ape Trust five years ago sued Rumbaugh and her affiliated organization. Because of ownership issues involving the apes, other defendants include the Atlanta zoo, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Japan Monkey Centre Institute and Museum of Primatology.

A three-day hearing before Magistrate Judge Ross Walters is set for federal court in Des Moines next week.

The apes, who can communicate, are not talking. …

Another suit: Central College of Pella has sued the Davis Brown law firm and Piper Jaffray alleging negligence and asking for more than $1 million in damages. According to the suit, filed last week in district court in Marion County, advised the college in a bond refinancing deal that took place three years ago. But the deal ran afoul of federal rules, and Central ended up having to pay $276.443.74 to the Internal Revenue Service.

It’s a technical issue involving arbitrage, but the suit says the Davis firm and lawyer David VanSickel knew of the rules and were “negligent in providing bond-counsel advice. A spokesman for the firm says, “We deny the allegations and intend to vigorously defend the claim.” A similar allegation is made about Piper Jaffray, though no individual is named in that negligence count. …

Carolyn Washburn, who was editor of The Des Moines Register before being transferred to Cincinnati four years ago, is out of the job there. She “resigned” last week, not long after new publisher Rick Green — lately of Des Moines — took over there. …

Mick Ferrari, the former Drake president who died over the weekend in Arizona, was a nice man. CV


A reporter lies

Jennifer Miller should be fired.

Miller, The Des Moines Register’s food critic, bubblingly told her readers a couple of weeks ago that she was one of the chosen few who “got to taste six new sauce choices at a special cool-people-only (and me, too) blind tasting” to determine “what kind of a new wing sauce will make it on the Jethro’s menu.”

The sauces, she said, were “delicious.”

In fact, Miller never went to the tasting session. She never tasted any of the sauces. She had no idea if they were delicious or stomach-churning. She lied.

“I need to tell you something,” she told her readers a week later. “I lied.”

She explained: she planned to go on vacation the week before the tasting “and had to work ahead.” So she covered an event before it took place, which is a neat trick that wouldn’t occur to most reporters. Then she got sick and couldn’t actually attend. But the column ran anyway.

That’s strange. And it gets stranger.

The tasting event was on April 27. The column ran on May 5, eight days later. She had plenty of time to kill the column, or rewrite it, but she didn’t. She forgot about it, her boss, Executive Editor Amalie Nash, told Cityview. That’s somewhere between incredible and inconceivable. And her editors read it after April 27, “so they did not have reason to believe it was pre-written” — and that’s a great euphemism — “and hadn’t happened,” Nash said.

That’s true: Editors regularly quiz reporters, but it doesn’t occur to them to say: “You actually were at the game” — or the concert or the meeting or the sauce-testing — “weren’t you?” Some things are taken on faith.

Miller did not respond to emails from Cityview. But initially, at least, she seemed to take the whole matter light-heartedly. After confessing that she lied, she went on to say: “So I haven’t tasted the wing sauces but I know they’re all delicious, because Jethro’s wings just are.”

Then she cavalierly wrote the matter off: “The good news is that I didn’t lie about the fact that each Jethro’s location is serving a different new sauce…and [one] will be put on all the Jethro’s menus.” She never apologized to readers.

The Gannett newspaper division has a code of ethics. Among other things, it says:

“We are committed to seeking and reporting the truth in a truthful way.”


“We will be honest in the way we gather, report and present news.”


“We will act honorably and ethically in dealing with…the public….”


“We will always try to do the right thing.”

Nash, who never ducks questions from Cityview, said “the Register takes its ethics policy seriously and expects employees to abide by it.” She said that what Miller did “is not consistent with our standards.”

Asked if Miller had been disciplined, she said she “can’t discuss discipline since that’s a personnel issue.”

She also said she had scheduled a staff meeting for this week to talk about ethics.

That’s too late for the food writer. She made up a story. She broke the ethics code. She damaged the newspaper’s credibility.

Jennifer Miller should be fired. CV

— Michael Gartner



One Comment

  1. John Deeth says:

    Aside from the ethics question: If we’re firing people, terminate the Register management who decided to use their ever dwindling resources on reviewing chain restaurants. (Same problem at the Iowa City edition of the Register, oops, I mean “the Press-Citizen” (sic)

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