Monday, November 26, 2007

Earthpark's Week-Long Wake

November 26, 2007, 5:30 p.m.; November 27, 2007, 7:25 a.m., 7:15 p.m.; November 28, 2007, 6:45 a.m.; November 29, 2007, 6:40 a.m.; November 30, 2007, 6:00 a.m. (questions for Senator Grassley); December 2, 2007, 8:00 a.m.; December 4, 2007, 7;00 p.m.; December 6, 2007, 3:10 p.m., 5:30 p.m.; December 7, 2007, 8:00 a.m.

[Dec. 7] Only because this blog entry is now pushing lengths becoming unwieldy, I'm starting a new one later this morning -- while continuing to "incorporate by reference" the material that remains very much relevant that is here. It's now (10:00 a.m.) available as Nicholas Johnson, "Earthpark: Grassley's the Story," December 7, 2007.

There's a Des Moines Register story yesterday that requires commentary. Like the UI presidential search that I blogged about (rather than creating a Web page for) under the assumption it would, of course, be wound up by the end of December 2005 -- only to experience it extending another six months -- the DOE said it would arrive at a decision in "a couple of days" (i.e., by last Tuesday (this now being Friday)). It now appears that, Senator Grassley's protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, Earthpark has been granted an "extension." It's outrageous!! [To be continued in the next blog entry later this morning.]

[Dec. 2-6] Earthpark Refuses to Make Public Document Available to Media

How Long? Oh, How Long Must We Wait to Know?

Which Iowa Media Will Be the First to Report Its Contents?

[Dec. 6] State29 has had a couple of blog entries worth noting: State29, "Earthpark: Oh, The Irony," December 5, 2007, and State29, "Blogger Malpractice?" December 5, 2007. He's now added, State29, "Earthpark: Bloggers Doing The Jobs That The Media Won't," December 6, 2007.

"Blogger Malpractice" concludes with a personal challenge of sorts from State29 to me: "I can see it now - Nick Johnson calling up, getting a copy, and scanning the thing into his archive for all to see. Well, I hope he does. I certainly don't expect him to do it."

How could I fail to oblige? My email to Brian J. Quirke went off this morning:

Dear Mr. Quirke:

As you are probably aware, there is a great deal of interest here in Iowa regarding the Earthpark application for the remainder of the $50 million Senator Chuck Grassley has made available to David Oman and his associates.

I have a number of questions to which I would appreciate your response.

1. Who (name and email) has the initial DOE responsibility for a judgment as to whether, or not, the conditions of the match have been met?

2. Who (name and email) has the final sign-off responsibility?

3. Because your indicated title is “Office of the Manager – Communications” are you a part of this decision making process, or are you primarily the public and media relations person for the Chicago office?

4. The local press reported that the application was timely filed by Earthpark (sent November 30, and received on December 1). I am assuming this is correct. Is it? It also quoted you as saying that document, and the DOE decisions regarding it, would be available within “a couple of days.” That would have been sometime between last Monday and Wednesday, depending on what days are counted. What is the current status of the decision making process and when do you now expect your decision will be made public?

5. Given the degree of interest in this matter, it would seem to me both more efficient for DOE, and certainly more efficient for citizens and media, if you would be willing to put the Earthpark document up on the DOE Web site. Agencies, including your own, often do this as you know. While the FOIA enables citizens to file formal requests, and even sue agencies if necessary, to get access to public documents, it certainly does not contemplate that this will be the required process in every case. Question: Are you willing to make the Earthpark application available via the Web (either in the electronic form in which it was provided to the Chicago Office, or if it only came in hard copy, as a scanned document)?

6. Can you refer me to the statutory, or DOE regulatory, or directions from Senator Grassley’s office, or other written standards that will be applied by your office in determining whether whatever Earthpark has or has not provided should be considered to constitute a “match”?

Nicholas Johnson
If the email is answered I'll share that with readers of this blog. If it is not, I'll share that fact with you a week from now.

Meanwhile, the [Pella] Town Crier News reports:

Mayor Dobernecker speaks briefly about EarthPark

Following a brief news clip on television this morning, we called Mayor Dobernecker for his take on the report that funding for the Earthpark project proposed for Pella had been secured.

The Mayor said he had been informed by David Oman, chairman of the project, that funding had been secured and the necessary paperwork submitted November 30 to the Department of Energy. Some felt it might be a matter of days, some felt a matter of months, before the Department of Energy reviewed the submitted documents and agreed that the funding met Departmental guidelines.

Further, the mayor stated that "The City of Pella has not committed one dime towards this project. The reality is that of course, if the project is to be completed, the City will incur some infrastructure expenses,," but that none of the funding that the project had to match in order to receive for the Department of Energy grant was from the City of Pella.

"Of course the City has done some preliminary estimates, but the appropriate time for the City to review and begin planning for what this project might actually mean for the City and what funds to commit where is after we are certain the project is actually taking place, that is, after the Department of Energy rules on the submission from Oman," the Mayor added.

Originally, Earthpark plans included condominiums near a new marina, but the Army Corps of Engineers rejected the marina proposal.
The Des Moines Register's "Dateline Iowa" this morning [Dec. 6] merely said,
"Earthpark's fate hinges on donations

Developers of Earthpark, the planned $150 million environmental and educational center near Pella, are waiting for the U.S. Department of Energy to pass judgment on a critical grant for the project.

The project planned for the north shore of Lake Red Rock had until Dec. 1 to come up with $48 million in matching money required for the project to keep a $48 million federal grant. Without the grant, the project would have to be retooled or scrapped.
There was no reference to the inside information Oman provided the Pella mayor, that prompted the Town Crier to report: "The Mayor said he had been informed by David Oman, chairman of the project, that funding had been secured . . .."

While I'm happy to help out with the above email to the DOE, I really think this story is the media's -- primarily the Des Moines Register, The Gazette, Iowa City Press-Citizen and Daily Iowan -- responsibility to (1) demand the document from Oman and the DOE, suing for it under FOIA if necessary, and then (2) question Senator Grassley along the lines I've indicated below.

Let's face it: This has been a major Iowa (and national) story for ten years; it's now come to a head; it's either dead or dying (i.e., it either is flat broke, or it has been granted $47 million toward the $300 million it needs -- with a decade long track record of being unable to raise one dime in cash). In either case it is a big, big story. And while I appreciate the Register at least reporting that it has done nothing, and knows nothing about it -- which is more than the other three papers have bothered to tell us -- that's scarcely what I think we have a right to expect from one of America's largest newspaper chains at a time when they're trying to convince us of the wisdom of permitting them to own TV stations in the same markets they dominate with their newspapers.


[Dec. 4] A week ago the Associated Press reported that Department of Energy spokesperson "[Brian] Quirke said a decision on the application could come within a couple of days after it's received." Associated Press, "Deadline for Earthpark matching funds is Saturday," Wire, November 28, 2007.

Given that it was received by DOE last Friday (Nov. 30) or Saturday (Dec. 1) I'd say it's been "a couple of days." But there's no word yet as to how many tons of blue smoke and mirrors it takes to make what Senator Grassley would accept as a match for the $50 million of taxpayers' money.

Meanwhile, as State29 has noted, State29, "Earthpork: Keeping the Boondoggle Boondoggling," December 4, 2007, the Press-Citizen's editorial essay about the project this morning was one of the best pieces of writing to come from the state's largely-Earthpark-cheerleading media during the last five years or so. Read it. Editorial, "Area Did Right Thing With the Earthpark Deal," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 4, 2007.

So a big "Hat's Off" to the Press-Citizen for what is an excellent start.

But I ask again: Who will be the first assignment editor to send a reporter out to ask Senator Grassley personally to respond to the questions I've laid out for him below, and then either tell us what he says, or report that he was too embarrassed to respond?

This is not just an "Earthpark story." It's not even just a "Senator Chuck Grassley story" -- although his former chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee, and continued efforts to build the illusion he is a fiscal conservative, are certainly a part of the story. As an oft-cited example of one of the worst of Congress' "earmarks" excesses, Earthpark is, during this pre-caucus presidential candidates' season, a major politics and money story: What is the relationship between special interest campaign "contributions" and Congressional action -- or inaction? How is Congress handling our money, and what are these presidential candidates proposing to do about it? It is -- as most signs indicate that the light at the end of the financial tunnel is an oncoming recession -- a useful illustration of why we're in the financial trouble we're in. In short, this unmonitored giveaway is a big and multifaceted story.

For the media to ignore the lessons in this Earthpark disaster is doing no one a favor -- least of all their audience and readers.

[Dec. 2] Earthpark promoters, having built a reputation for themselves over the past decade as a no-transparency, wagons-in-a-circle bunch, have now outdone themselves.

As State29 reported Friday, State29, "Earthpork Deadline Tomorrow," November 30, 2007, Earthpark's application for Senator Chuck Grassley's generous $50 million of taxpayers' money was yesterday.

Their application was reportedly timely filed and is one day old today. It is, therefore, a public document, legally available to media and public alike -- and, if obstinately withheld, obtainable with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

And yet The Gazette reported yesterday, "Earthpark spokeswoman Kristin Sunde . . . declined to provide The Gazette a copy of the application." "Rain Forest Officials Submit Application," The Gazette, December 1, 2007, p. B7. What on Earth-park is this about? And why aren't The Gazette and the other Iowa media, normally our staunch defenders of public access, screaming bloody murder?

And who do we find pictured on the Des Moines Register's front page this morning? Well, a half-dozen presidential candidates. But I mean at the top of the far right column? None other than Earthpark founder Ted Townsend, featured in what I will call "a flattering feature story." (State29 may well come up with a characterization more befitting that blog's motto: "Keeping Track Of All Those Iowa Scandals While Remaining Insightfully Vulgar." Later: Well, I was wrong, but he does write about it; see State29, "Earthpork: The Day After the Deadline," December 2, 2007. ) Perry Beeman, "Big ideas, passion motivate Ape Trust founder," Des Moines Register, December 2, 2007, p. A1.

Over the past five years or more, I have endeavored to provide helpful suggestions for, as well as criticism of, Earthpark -- with little success at either. Because I've always thought that Townsend's "Great Ape Trust" made a lot more sense than his Iowa rain forest project, one suggestion was that -- so long as Senator Grassley was so stubbornly insistent on giving $50 million of our money to his friends and campaign contributors -- there at least be an effort to redirect the money away from a rain forest doomed to economic and other failures and into Townsend's Great Ape Trust, a science project with enormous potential.

With some tinkering, that might still be possible -- providing additional space for the great apes, a visitor center, or housing and offices for researchers.

Oman doesn't have $50 million cash on hand, and isn't about to get it. To do the rain forest right would require something closer to $300 million than the $150-140 million to which he's now scaled it back. Even if Senator Grassley does decide that Oman's received promises of unspecified, and over-valued "in-kind services" at some undesignated time in the future meet the terms of the required "match" of $50 million (less the $3 million Oman took and spent before he was caught and stopped), given that he has failed to raise a single dime over the past 10 years -- let me repeat that, with a full-bore effort at fund raising over a decade the promoters of this project have been unable to raise a dime -- that means, once he gets the $50 million from taxpayers, he will still only have that $50 million in hand to build what even Oman thinks needs $140-150 million (and I think needs twice that).

So -- even with Grassley's $50 million of taxpayers' money -- where is Oman now suddenly going to be able to come up with the additional $100 million, given the record of no contributions whatsoever over the past ten years?

For more on this failed proposal, see below, and my 200-page Earthpark Web site.


And in other news: FromDC2Iowa is going to be a running blog entry this week [November 26 until . . .], tracking last rites for Earthpark in this one entry until Senator Grassley finally rules on whether smoke and mirrors constitute his definition of a $50 million "match."

UI Sexual Assault. See, Rekha Basu, "Questions, again, over an alleged U of I sex assault," Des Moines Register, November 28, 2007; Scott Dochterman, "No set timeline for assault investigation," The Gazette, November 28, 2007, p. C1; "Regents staffers checking if UI followed policies," The Gazette, November 29, 2007, p. B1.

Hawkeye football's good news. [Nov. 29] Isn't it about time for some good news from the football program? With 10% of the team having been in trouble with the law, three more under investigation for sexual assault, the December 3 trial of a 2005 player charged with major drug dealing coming up next week, Jennifer Hemmingsen, "Former UI athlete faces six felony drug charges," The Gazette, November 21, 2007, and the trial of one of this season's players one week later (December 10), Rob Daniel, "Football Player Going to Trial," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 30, 2007, p. A1 (theft of credit cards, and subsequently theft of DVDs), and see Lee Hermiston, "Douglas reaches plea deal," Iowa City Press-Citizen, December 4, 2007, it might be a good time for the program to showcase some of its more outstanding graduates.

One day later [Nov. 30] I'm pleased to note that both the Press-Citizen ("Klinkenborg, Shada Honored for Grades," p. B1) and The Gazette ("Klinkenborg, Shada Academic All-Americans," p. C1) carry the news this morning that Hawkeye football players Mike Klinkenborg and Adam Shada have been named "academic all-Americans" by the College Sports Information Directors for having earned a 3.95 and 4.00 GPA in elementary education and finance, respectively.

While I think it well worthwhile to document that there are, indeed, at least some players who really are student-athletes, what I was really looking for was something more along the line of what John Barleykorn contributed in a comment (11/29 9:11 a.m.) on this blog entry yesterday -- what football players have done after graduation. I don't mean those who are playing with pro teams; rather, those who are attending (or have graduated from) professional graduate schools, are doing community organizing or otherwise working with non-profits, are serving on school boards or in other elective or appointed positions -- though I don't mean to suggest it should be limited to those options.

How about it? Any more nominations? I think now would be a good time for a little more balance here.


Earthpark Teeters on Grave's Edge
Staying Alive? "Hmm, maybe if I change the name again & hit it some more"

[See the end of this blog entry for the credits and background on this editorial cartoon, created and copyright by Joe Sharpnack.]

[Nov. 30] Senator Chuck Grassley Has Explaining to Do

Senator Grassley must -- and ultimately will have to -- explain his $50 million earmark to the taxpayers of Iowa and the nation.

Politically, earmarks have come out of the closet and into the sunshine. They are a subject of the rhetoric surrounding the current run up to the 2008 presidential election. They are talked about on the floor of the House and Senate and in the editorial pages of the nation's newspapers.

And as critics look for examples, the "Iowa Rain Forest" has become the poster child of earmarks for many.

It's not going away -- even if Senator Grassley says they haven't met the terms of the grant. But it's really going to blow up if he says they have.

It looks like (see the content following the sub-heading below) Grassley-Ray-Townsend-Oman are gearing up an effort to pass the blame for this giveaway onto the Department of Energy (which was given the clerical job of administering the matching grant).

That dog won't hunt.

The media must get some answers from the Senator. This may have been our $50 million of money, but it was his project, his use of his power as a U.S. Senator on behalf of Ray-Townsend-Oman, his sneaking through an earmark with no debate, that brings us to where we are today.

The basic question for the Senator is: Knowing of the project's inability to raise money, knowing that it does not have $50 million cash on hand, knowing that even if it did it would still need to raise an additional $50 million to go ahead with construction (when it has not been able to raise a dime in 10 years), therefore knowing that even if you give them the $50 million it still won't be enough to insure the project will be built, knowing that its own consultants told the promoters they would need at a minimum a structure more than 50% larger than what they've now scaled their plans down to if they were even to have a problematical prayer of breaking even, knowing that most independent economists believe the project cannot produce sufficient cash flow to sustain itself (thus leaving it to either never get constructed, or having been constructed quickly close, or perpetually draw upon public funds for subsidy), why do you believe, today, that your $50 million earmark of taxpayers' money for this project is a wise use of taxpayers' dollars?

Subsidiary questions are: (1) Do you personally agree with and support the judgment that the project has met the terms of what you had in mind as a "matching grant" -- especially given the facts detailed above? If the project has neither $50 million in cash on hand, or pledges for that amount of cash that can be immediately called, what is the rationale for concluding they have "matched" your grant?
You can't buy materials and construct a structure on the basis of promises of some ill-defined "in-kind services" to be provided at some undesignated time in the future. Where do you think the additional $100 million (and preferably more) is going to come from? Do you agree that this judgment call is your responsibility, or are you washing your hands of the decision and taking the position that it is solely up to the Department of Energy? If so, how do you justify that stance?

(2) What is your position with regard to the "missing" roughly $3 million? Was it your intention that the initial $50 million grant was to be used for construction, or did you intend it as a gift that Oman could draw on whenever he wanted for whatever he wanted -- even though all signs pointed to a substantial likelihood the project would never be completed as originally proposed (indeed, your original earmark assumed it would be built in Coralville -- one of many Iowa cities that ended up rejecting it)? If it is concluded that the terms of the "match" have not been met will that $3 million be returned to the U.S. Treasury or do you consider it just a $3 million gift to a friend? If you conclude that the terms of the match have been met, do they need to match $50 million (since they will have received that amount: $3 million plus an additional $47 million), or do they only need to match the $47 million and we'll just forget about the $3 million?

Only Iowa's media can put these questions to Senator Grassley and then report his answers -- or his refusal to answer. Let's hope and pray they do this for us.

November 27/28 EXTRA: Oman Claims $50 Million Cash on Hand. David Oman, CEO and and CPO (chief publicity officer) of what State29 persists in calling "Earthpork," announced November 27 that "an array of sources coming together as a confluence" -- like this week's line-up of Saturn, Venus and Mercury -- is going to occur in time to make the deadline for this "very complex project" -- although "He would not provide specifics about where the $48 million matching funds are coming from." (Nor, apparently, would he provide specifics about why a "$50 million match" is satisfied with $48 million -- given that the only reason there is only $47 or 48 million left is because he started to consume the $50 million before the terms of the grant had been met -- and, so far as is known, has no plan (nor demand from Senator Grassley) to pay that money back.) "Earthpark to Meet Funding Deadline," KCCI-TV8, November 27, 2007.

And see, Gregg Hennigan, "Rain forest crunch time; Earthpark, U.S. official optimistic as critical funding deadline nears," The Gazette, November 28, 2007, p. A1 (identifying source "Brian Quirke, a spokesman for the Department of Energy," and noting that the $300 million, $225 million, $180 million, $150 million project is now budgeted at $140 million).

Of course, if he doesn't have $50 million cash on hand, if after you blow away the smoke there's nothing but mirrors, promises, loans, "in-kind future services," already-planned roads, and so forth, Senator Grassley is going to have to come up with an even more imaginative explanation for why he is turning this $50 million sow's ear (mark) into a $100 million silk purse.

It's also necessary to note five other financial details.

1. This was originally a $300 million project. When it was reduced to $225 million, the project's own consultants warned that there were virtually no possibilities of economic viability unless it could market itself as "the world's largest" -- something that could not be accomplished with anything less than a $225 million structure. The plan has subsequently been reduced to a $180 million structure, and now to $150 million.

2. Even at $300 million -- twice the present plan -- there were serious questions raised by independent economists regarding the financial viability of such a project if it was located in a major population center such as Des Moines with easy access to both Interstates 80 and 35. Now it is proposed for the small town of Pella (population under 10,000), located 36 miles away from Des Moines and about as far from Interstate 80.

3. Aside from the original $10 million pledge from Ted Townsend, and the $50 million match from Senator Grassley, so far as is known the project has been unable to raise a single dime over the course of the last 10 years -- notwithstanding the network of contacts made possible by Iowa's present senator, and former Governor Bob Ray, among corporations, foundations and wealthy donors.

4. Thus, even if Oman does come up with $50 million cash on hand, and even with the match, and even if the $300 million project is thought to be acceptable as one-half that size, he will still need to find another $50 million from somewhere -- notwithstanding the extraordinarily failed record of fund raising during the past decade.

5. Finally, as serious as these up-front financing problems may be, they pale by comparison to the future, on-going financial problems in operating such a facility. If -- as many predict -- an adequate revenue stream is not forthcoming, who will pick up the slack, or what would be done with the project once it is closed.
There are, of course, many other categories of problems with Earthpark, but since the focus is on the financials this week, it is useful to keep these five points in mind.

# # #

Is there anyone left in America who is not aware of the decade-long dream of Ted Townsend and David Oman -- with the financial encouragement of a $50-million earmark from grateful federal taxpayers provided by Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley -- to build a tropical rain forest under glass on Iowa's otherwise-unused, snow-covered corn fields in winter?

For those of us who have been blogging about, and otherwise following, this public relations spectacular and economic disaster over the past ten years, this is going to be a big week.

Why? Because the revised terms of Senator Grassley's generosity require that Oman come up with a matching $50 million grant by December 1, 2007, or lose the taxpayers' contribution. (Left unanswered is whether he will have to repay the two or three million he took from the fund to, in part, pay a generous salary to himself, before Grassley realized the spigot was open and closed it.)

State29, one of the most dedicated followers, bloggers and debunkers of this folly, is also counting the days. State29, "Earthpork: 7 Days Left," November 24, 2007.

And see Chris Woods, "Will Huckabee Support Earthpark?" Political Forecast: Iowa Politics and Beyond, November 27, 2007.

I began writing about this project in January 2001, and started a Web site February 2004 -- variously called, as the location and name of the project changed over the months and years, "Iowa Child," "Iowa Educational/Environmental Project," "Coralville Rain Forest," "Iowa Environmental Project," "The Environmental Project," and "Earthpark." (After having been rejected by over a half-dozen Iowa cities, it's now trying to take root in Pella, Iowa -- best known for tulips and many miles from any Interstate highway.)

Since that time I've published some 14 or more op ed columns along with another 15 lecture texts or other online pieces. The Web site now prints out at over 200 pages, and has links to the full text of hundreds of newspaper articles and other printed resources. It is presumably the most complete collection of material -- pro and con -- available anywhere on the Internet at a single site.

If this thing is new to you, and you're not inclined to research a couple hundred pages of Web site, here's one of those op ed columns, one that briefly mentions at least some of the history and problems associated with the project:

Time to Learn From What Works

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen

January 20, 2006

The Press-Citizen thinks "Towns Should Take it Slow with Rain Forest" (Jan. 14). Most Iowans are taking the editorial board's advice.

Rain forest promoters may still make it somehow, somewhere in Iowa. Regardless, Ted Townsend, Bob Ray and David Oman have helped open Iowans' eyes to the possibilities, and pitfalls, of such attractions.

Will we learn from their mistakes? Only if we search the Internet for the formula and details of success stories, for "what works." In Iowa: Dubuque's National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, Adventureland, Living History Farms, Ted Townsend's Great Ape Trust. Outside Iowa: Omaha's zoo, Atlanta's aquarium, Colonial Williamsburg, Disneyland.

Focus. Like a business emphasizing its "core competency," successful ventures usually have a focus, like the Great Ape Trust. The rain forest kept shifting focus from tourist attraction to school to research facility. (As blogger State 29 put it, "It's a floor wax. It's a dessert topping. It's whatever they want it to be.")

Community-based. Successful ventures grow bottom up, like Omaha's zoo, the Englert theater renovation, and Dubuque's "Envision 2010," rather than being imposed top down like the rain forest.

Logical location. Aquariums do best near oceans; Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Va. The Living History Farms, or Dubuque's Mississippi museum on the banks of that great river, gain significance from their location in Iowa. A rain forest does not.

Up-front financing. Home Depot's Bernard Marcus gave $200 million for Atlanta's aquarium. Omaha's zoo and Dubuque's museum are locally funded. Neither uses the debt financing that's caused other projects' downfall. Rain forest promoters went public without money in hand, had none from Iowa City-Coralville donors, and now talk of borrowing their matching grant.

Business plans. Entrepreneurs dream of success and fear failure. Venture capitalists and loan officers avoid losses by demanding details. Even so, one-third of each year's 800,000 new businesses fail within four years. Imagine the risks when promoters play with public money instead of their own. Without rain forest focus there couldn't be business plans. Without plans there couldn't be sufficiently detailed construction and operating budgets. Without details no one could evaluate the project's practicality, and deadlines kept slipping -- for nine years.

Cost overruns. Over-runs are common. Boston's "Big Dig" ran five times budget. So did the Englert ($1 million budget, $5 million cost). The Iraq war may end up 10 times projections ($2 trillion vs. $200 billion). How would rain forest overruns have been financed? Omaha zoo projects are completed ahead of schedule and under budget.

Revenue streams. Construction costs are relatively easy. Operating costs five and ten years later are the problem. Successful Iowa attractions know attendance will range from 65,000 a year (Hoover Library) to 500,000 (Adventureland), and budget realistically. Disneyland may get 10 to 15 million, Colonial Williamsburg almost one million. But such numbers are mostly limited to multi-million-population urban centers. Many failing projects start with overly optimistic attendance projections -- like the rain forest's estimated 1.3 million annual visitors.

Realistic evaluation. The rain forest's fundamental problems have been obvious for four years. So why did so many public officials and mass media continue to emphasize "the 'Wow!' and the wonderful," virtually ignoring risks and realism? A skeptical venture capitalist asks questions and is called "a smart businessperson." Why, when citizens ask the same questions about the rain forest, are they called "naysayers" who "lack vision"?
Iowa has plenty of successful attractions throughout the state. There's no reason it can't have many more. But only if we remember the lesson of the Laser Center: "build it and they will come" only works in the movies. Only if we build solid financial foundations under our dreams. Only if we give more attention to revenue streams and operating costs than construction costs.

Iowa needs bold vision. Naysaying doesn't help; but rational analysis does. And when "the emperor has no clothes" we ignore the difference at our peril.
Hopefully, a week from today at least some of the evaporated $2-3 million will have been repaid, this project will be behind us, and the lessons it has provided will be put to good use by those with realistic plans for Iowa's future economic development.

Or . . .
Will Oman be able to pull a $50 million rabbit from his dilapidated hat during Earthpark's last week on death row?

Watch this space and see.

# # #

Joe Sharpnack editorial cartoon credits and background.

The following is excerpted from my entry in my Rain Forest Web site from the time when the project's public relations efforts warranted weekly Web site entries. This one is for "The Week Prior to May 15 [2006]."

The Week Prior to May 15 . . .

was an opportunity for David Oman to demonstrate, once again, the true public relations genius that he has brought to the rain forest project from the beginning. He managed to get newspapers to make front page news -- literally page one, column one, above the fold -- out of the name of the project.

There are much more serious challenges confronting the project. Moreover, it has gone through numerous name changes during the nine years of its existence, seemingly without the ability of its board and management to settle on one: Iowa Child, Iowa Environmental/Education Project, Iowa Environmental Project and the Environmental Project. Thus, the following news story would have involved questionable news judgment even if the announcement had involved the long-awaited "permanent name."

But it did not. The "news" was that, like a UFO siting, Oman had discovered "names rolling around [and] floating through the air." However, none of these have even been passed upon by the board, and only one was revealed at this time: "Earth Park."

"We've always said the Environmental Project is a placeholder, pending decisions such as financing and selecting a site," project director David Oman said Monday. "It has always been our intention to brand the project with a permanent name." Oman said a decision on a permanent name hasn't been made yet, but the name Earth Park has surfaced among officials whose communities are in the running for the project. "There are several names that people have suggested, and they are being tested," Oman said. "There are scientific ways of testing and less formal ways."

Board member Richard Johnson of Sheldahl said the Earth Park name was "put forward" within the past six months. "But the board hasn't gone forward with it yet," he said. . . . The board of directors will select a final site in mid-May or June, depending on when a meeting can be arranged, Oman said.

"We are working on a (few) major fronts: a site front, financing front and name front. It would be helpful to pull these fronts together at some point," he said. He did not say if a name would be announced when the site was selected. "There are names rolling around. There are names floating through the air. There are some very interesting ones. We are looking how to best package this up," Oman said.
Joe Sharpnack,, who holds the copyright on this editorial cartoon, captured the significance of the "floating" alternative name with his usual sharp wit and insight. The cartoon appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on May 11, 2006.

For it was only in the last sentence of the story that we were to learn, "The project remains contingent on selecting a site and financing." Given the project's current three-front challenge -- what Oman calls "a site front, financing front and name front" -- it would seem that "the greatest of these" (to borrow a Biblical triage) remains, as it has been for the past nine years, the "financing front." Brian Morelli, "Yet Another New Name? Earth Park Floating Around," Iowa City Press-Citizen, May 9, 2006. (As the reader can tell from these excerpts, Morelli is a skilled, professional reporter who cannot be held responsible for either the assignments he receives, or the content of the interviews and handouts he has to turn into journalism. And yet he manages -- at least for the careful reader -- to get the story told.)
# # #

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Not Getting Answers

November 21, 2007, 8:00 a.m.

Prior Entries:

Nicholas Johnson, "Culling the Flock; How About Them Hawks?" November 15, 2007.

Nicholas Johnson, "Trouble in River City; Locker Room Update: What Can We Know, and When Can We Know It?," November 16, 2007.

Nicholas Johnson, "Football Story Has Muscular Legs; If UI Won't Talk, Regents Will," November 18, 2007.

Nicholas Johnson, "Stonewall's Mortar Crumbles; Now the Governor; UI, This is Not Good," November 20, 2007.

The Greatest "Story Two" Never Told

"Story One" regarding an alleged October 14 sexual assault on the UI campus involves such questions as what happened during those early morning hours, who was involved, what witnesses saw, what evidence was gathered by investigators, why the search warrants have been sealed, what the University has done for the accuser and her family, whether the Register should have named the names it did, and so forth.

"Story Two" has nothing to do with those things. It is very simple. It involves UI officials only. It concerns contact among and between them only. It doesn't involve the facts of what happened. It doesn't involve the names of the parties. It doesn't even involve what those officials discussed with each other. It only involves a handful of officials -- those responsible for cases like this. The question they need to answer is: "Who and when did someone on the UI payroll contact you about this matter, and who and when did you inform thereafter?" That "investigation" shouldn't take more than a couple hours maximum. And there is no reason I can imagine why they should not have to answer.

So far as I know, no journalist has yet put that question to any of those officials in precisely those terms. What they have asked are questions that relate to "story one," or questions that so conflate "story one" and "story two" that the official can properly respond that they can't answer because the matter is under investigation.

"It's not easy being green," sang Kermit the Frog.

Well, it's not easy being "Black and white and red all over" either -- to borrow from the children's riddle about newspapers.

You've got to hand it to the Press-Citizen for trying.

As Brian Morelli reported on November 16:

Following a tip, the Press-Citizen initially contacted UI officials about the alleged incident Oct. 19 and has followed up with more questions and formal document requests. During that time, several UI officials either wouldn't respond to questions about an alleged assault involving football players or said they didn't know about such an incident.

. . .

UI officials including athletics director Gary Barta, associate athletics director for student services Fred Mims, Equal Opportunity and Diversity director Marcella David and vice president for student services Phillip Jones are continuing to decline comment on many key questions in the case, citing the ongoing investigation.

Among the questions:

• Did the victim or the football players report the alleged assault to other UI officials before it was reported to police?

. . .

UI Police Director Charles Green also is declining comments on specifics, but he clarified that his officers "absolutely were not aware of the incident until the victim reported it to our department on Nov. 7."

. . .

Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said she was notified of the incident last week.

. . .

The new sexual harassment and assault reporting policy for student-athletes includes a chain of command reporting system and steps such as seeking resolutions, investigating and reporting findings. Various officials such as Mims, David, Jones and sexual harassment and compliance officer Mary Curtis are among those the policy states should be notified.

Every academic or administrative employee of UI is obligated to promptly notify David in most cases, or Jones in the case of residence hall incidents, regardless of the victim's wishes, according to the UI operations manual.
Brian Morelli, "Mason backs officials' response; Officials not saying if protocols were followed," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 16, 2007.

So I may have been driving a bit beyond my poetic license when, on Sunday, November 18, I blogged under a sub-head that read, "Why are local papers avoiding this story?":

Another mystery is why the local papers -- The Daily Iowan, The Gazette, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen -- have been so reluctant to ask these process questions of the University.

If they have asked these questions, and received answers, why have they not been reported? If they have asked these questions and couldn't get answers why have they not reported that story? And if they haven't even pursued this aspect of the story, why not?

Why do we have to rely on a newspaper, and Regents, in Des Moines to find out what's going on in Iowa City?
Nicholas Johnson, "Football Story Has Muscular Legs," November 18, 2007.

To clarify, from the context of that entire blog entry it is clear that by "This Story," and "what's going on in Iowa City," I was referring to what I've called "the second story." As I wrote there:

Let's make clear what I, and I believe Gartner, are -- and are not -- talking about.

We're not talking about revealing precisely what happened during the early morning hours of October 14. We're not talking about identifying the accuser or those accused.

What we are talking about is revealing to the media and public what the responsible adult, UI administrators did between October 14 and November 18 (today). That is something the public does have a right to know. Those revelations need not invade any privacy rights of the individuals involved. They need not affect the integrity of any trial that may or may not take place in the future.

This is, I believe, an absolutely crucial distinction. So long as officials are asked general questions, for which the answers need not, but could, compromise the integrity of the investigation and possible trial as well as the privacy interests of the accuser and the accused, they can properly refuse to answer.

It is only when it is made abundantly and unambiguously clear from the questions that they only deal with the "second story" that their refusal to respond does, indeed, constitute stonewalling.

The Press-Citizen continued its inquiry yesterday, as UI President Sally Mason traveled from downtown Iowa City out North Dodge Street to the paper's offices and met with its editorial board. The story of that exchange was given page-one headline play by the paper this morning. Brian Morelli, "Mason: Victim is leading process; Asks media to be patient during sex assault investigation," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 21, 2007, p. A1.

What do we learn from that interview, as reported, about "story two"? Virtually nothing. Were the precise questions I've just described asked of her? It's not clear from the story. What is clear is that there are no reports of answers.

What we also observe, from the story and especially the video of the interview accessible from the Press-Citizen Web site, is something we've known since the first time we caught a presentation by President Mason. She's good; very good. She comes across in the video, as we've seen her before, as calm, assured, soft spoken, informed, reassuring -- and as capable as any presidential candidate of either party who's come through Iowa City during the past year of making you believe that a lump of coal is a bouquet of roses.

She didn't focus on what she and the other administrators did or did not do -- which is the only legitimate story at this point. She focused on the accuser -- with feeling and sensitivity and compassion. Indeed, she even persisted in referring to the accuser as "the victim" -- which raises problems of its own, especially since the Press-Citizen picked up and repeated that characterization. But it was a truly brilliant performance in conception and execution on her part, and bodes well for the University's ability to deal with the other crises that are bound to arise in the future.

[President Mason noted the Duke case in the video excerpt from her interview. It's a reminder I have raised as well -- as have many others. But it should be noted in that context that describing an accuser as a "victim" is precisely what got Duke's administrators in trouble. As I've written earlier, both the accuser and the accused are entitled to presumptions at this point: the accuser is entitled to a presumption that she is telling the truth, and the accused are entitled to be characterized as "innocent until proven guilty."]

The story notes that, "UI is facing increased pressure to be forthright in explaining how it has handled the situation, including recent public comments from Gov. Chet Culver and Iowa state Board of Regents President Michael Gartner." It continues,

The Press-Citizen, following a tip, initially contacted UI officials about the alleged incident Oct. 19, and has followed up with more questions and formal document requests. During that time, several UI officials -- including athletics director Gary Barta, associate athletics director for student services Fred Mims, Equal Opportunity and Diversity director Marcella David and vice president for student services Phillip Jones -- declined to comment on many key questions in the case.

They have declined to answer questions about whether the victim [note the use by the Press-Citizen (not President Mason) of the characterization of "victim"] or the football players reported the alleged assault to other UI officials before it was reported to police, . . .."
But that was about it for "story two."

The lead for this morning's story in the paper is, "University of Iowa President Sally Mason urged the media to be 'patient' and 'sensitive' in pursuing a story about a sexual assault investigation involving three Iowa football players that remains largely clouded."

Everything she apparently said on that subject is, at a minimum, superficially credible and sound. The University should be sensitive to the needs and wishes of the accuser. The media can fairly be asked to be "patient" as that process works its way.

And equally obviously, none of this relates to "story two" in any way whatsoever.

Although, it is not unfair to note that in this situation, with the vast resources of the University of Iowa arrayed on one side, and those of the woman accuser on the other side, the UI does have a bit of a conflict of interest here when it endeavors to "help her" while she's "fragile" during this "sensitive" time. Clearly the UI Foundation, football program, the coach, the AD -- and not incidentally the University's president -- would suffer a much greater blow from a full-blown criminal trial than if the accuser were to opt for an alternative to that route.

President Mason said that she wanted answers to the same questions being asked by Regents President Gartner and Governor Culver -- and that it was appropriate for them to be asking those questions. (They are the same questions that I was asking last week.)

But "story two" is not that complicated. It doesn't require an "investigation." It doesn't require "patience." Especially not from President Mason. All it requires is about a half-dozen phone calls to people who supposedly report to her. Some of those people's names have been identified by the Press-Citizen and repeated here by me -- not that President Mason needs to be reminded who they are. Those phone calls do not involve questions regarding the identity of accuser or accused, what those individuals have said, or what evidence is possessed and reveals. They do not involve questions regarding what is being done for the accuser and her family.

The question is, simply, "Who and when did someone on the UI payroll contact you about this matter, and who and when did you inform thereafter?" That "investigation" shouldn't take more than a couple hours maximum.

Has she obtained that information? Did anyone with the Press-Citizen ask her? If so, what were the answers she, and the paper, received? That's "story two," and it has yet to be told.

# # #

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stonewall's Mortar Crumbles

November 20, 2007, 7:45 a.m.

Now the Governor; UI, this is Not Good

Who failed to notice the oncoming locomotive when they circled the wagons around the Pentacrest on the railroad track?

To recap: Last Wednesday state and local law enforcement were seen searching dorm rooms at the University of Iowa's Hillcrest dormitory. The story was that allegations of a sexual assault on October 14 had led to investigations of two or more Hawkeye football players.

On Thursday, November 15 I blogged, Nicholas Johnson, "Culling the Flock; How About Them Hawks?" November 15, 2007 -- proposing that one thing the athletic program might try (beyond its characterization of 10% of the team being in trouble with the law as merely "cyclical") would be a more thorough vetting of recruits' high school records before bringing them onto the UI campus.

Two Stories -- Not One.

On Friday I noted that there are really two stories here, with very different needs for confidentiality. Nicholas Johnson, "Trouble in River City; Locker Room Update: What Can We Know, and When Can We Know It?," November 16, 2007.

Those who argue -- as do a couple of comments on these blog entries -- that the mainstream and blogging media should leave the university alone at this time conflate those two stories. The distinctions are crucial here.

One story involves those being investigated, and the woman who is alleged to be their accuser. Until there have been formal fact findings, either as a result of a trial or otherwise, she is entitled to a presumption that her complaint is factually based, presented honestly and in good faith. Similarly, those being investigated are entitled to a presumption of "innocent until proven guilty." Both presumptions require a measure of confidentiality -- as to the identity of the parties, and any early results of whatever investigation is underway, not to mention the whirlwind of gossip.

The other story involves the silence of UI administrators -- what the Press-Citizen characterizes in its editorial this morning as a "massive public relations train wreck that is unfolding in Iowa City." The second story does not enjoy a presumption of a need for confidentiality. That story has almost no connection whatsoever to the other. It is the story of, as I put it earlier, among those UI administrators with responsibility for handling such things, "what did they know? When did they know it? And what did they do about it?"

Apparently all who could speak to these questions have taken a group blood oath of silence. Now, I hasten to add, it could be that they have a good reason for their silence. I can't imagine what it would be, but it's possible. Obviously, if any of them have violated state laws, or UI regulations, and are themselves under investigation then concerns of confidentiality would arise for them as they do for the players. Regardless of what the reasons may be, until the questions regarding their behavior are answered, or explanations are offered for their silence, the hole they have dug for themselves just gets deeper by the hour. (As the paper puts it, "The longer those questions go unanswered, the worse it becomes for the university.")
The next thing we knew, Board of Regents President Michael Gartner was asking UI President Sally Mason for precisely this kind of explanation, as I blogged on the 16th. Nicholas Johnson, "Football Story Has Muscular Legs; If UI Won't Talk, Regents Will," November 18, 2007.

In that blog entry there were many sub-headings, one of which read, "Why are local papers avoiding this story?" -- and by "this story" meaning the second, the story about UI administrators' action, inaction, and silence.

Now this morning, we read that the Governor is similarly curious, and the Press-Citizen devotes nearly a half of its editorial page to calls for information from the University about this second story. Rob Daniel, "Culver Wants 'Thorough Investigation'; Expects UI to Assess Procedures Followed in Alleged Assault," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 20, 2007, p. A1 ("I . . . expect the University to quickly assess whether the right internal procedures were followed and to be forthcoming with the public about the results of that assessment . . ."), and Editorial, "Time for UI to Provide Some Answers," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 20, 2007, p. A11.

Not incidentally, so far as a quick scan of the papers revealed, the Press-Citizen was the only paper to mention the Governor's involvement -- and certainly to give it page one play.

See generally the chronology of events (in both these stories) under the November 18 blog entry's sub-heading, "The Register's chronology" -- items that I pulled from Register stories and then organized chronologically.

Speaking of which, there is one possible error in the Press-Citizen's news story this morning. The paper says the October 14 incident was reported to the UI police on November 7. (a) Apparently Campus Police received a "rape kit" from the UIHC on October 14. (b) The chief says it received the report on November 5, and November 7 is simply the date it became public.

The editorial notes that the press was on the first story as early as October 14. It also discusses the propriety of continuing to keep the search warrants sealed after they have been executed, since the statute provides the general rule is that after the search is completed the warrant becomes a public document -- although they can remain sealed for an additional 60 days, which is apparently what was done here.

I'm a little less upset about this than the Press-Citizen. Opening the search warrants gets a little closer to the integrity of any possible trial, as well as the legitimate privacy interests of the parties -- even if, as the paper suggests, their names have been redacted.

Moreover, the legitimacy of this judgment call by the county attorney and judge is reinforced by what must be their realization that if their decision to seal is subsequently revealed to have been a move more motivated by a desire to serve the athletic program's public relations interests than to serve the interests of justice and transparency, they will pay a price at that time for their decision.

# # #

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Football Story Has Muscular Legs

November 18, 2007, 7:00 a.m.

If UI Won't Talk, Regents Will

With three football players questioned in an alleged sexual assault case, questions swirl around UI and athletic program administrators: What did they know, when did they know it, and what did they do about it?

The story is turning out to, as they say in the news biz, "have legs." And the UI's efforts at amputation are proving to be even less successful than the few remaining football players' (10% of the team has had dealings with the law this season) efforts to achieve a come-from-behind victory against Western Michigan yesterday, having started off the afternoon spotting the visitors 19 points.

Now is the time. The UI's spokesperson is quoted in this morning's Register as saying,

"We know the time will come when we need to have the public understand what happened, but now is not the time."
Tom Witosky and Erin Jordan, "Gartner demands answers at U of I; At issue is the university's response to an alleged sexual assault. Three football players have been questioned in the case," Des Moines Register, November 18, 2007, p. A1.

Because I know this guy to be bright, accomplished and professional I'd be surprised if he makes this stuff up on the fly. I simply assume that he was either told what to say, or was smart enough to figure out what he would have been told had anyone bothered to tell him.

Obviously, I disagree. I think now is the time; indeed, it is past time.

Regents to the rescue. And, as the Register reports this morning, there is also disagreement regarding the UI's reluctance from at least two members of the UI governing body, the Board of Regents -- including its president, Michael Gartner, who emailed UI President Sally Mason,

The alleged crime itself is outrageous, if true, and is damaging to the reputation of the University and its athletic department. But if the policies are inadequate or the processes weren't followed, the damage is multiplied.

His concern is similar to that which I expressed in a lengthy blog entry Friday, Nicholas Johnson, "Trouble in River City; Locker Room Update: What Can We Know, and When Can We Know It?," November 16, 2007. (This was a follow-up to the entry from the day before, Nicholas Johnson, "Culling the Flock; How About Them Hawks?" November 15, 2007.)

There are two sets of questions and stories here:
What happened the morning of October 14 allegedly involving football players?
What happened thereafter, clearly involving UI administrators?

Let's make clear what I, and I believe Gartner, are -- and are not -- talking about.

We're not talking about revealing precisely what happened during the early morning hours of October 14. We're not talking about identifying the accuser or those accused.

What we are talking about is revealing to the media and public what the responsible adult, UI administrators did between October 14 and November 18 (today). That is something the public does have a right to know. Those revelations need not invade any privacy rights of the individuals involved. They need not affect the integrity of any trial that may or may not take place in the future.

If such revelations would cause harm, then the UI ought to explain why and how that would be the case. It is possible there are good reasons for not revealing what the responsible adults did. But in the absence of such explanations, stonewalling is neither a responsible way to exercise a public institution's obligations to provide transparency for the public -- nor, it usually turns out, a very effective public relations strategy either.

Why are local papers avoiding this story? Another mystery is why the local papers -- The Daily Iowan, The Gazette, and the Iowa City Press-Citizen -- have been so reluctant to ask these process questions of the University.

If they have asked these questions, and received answers, why have they not been reported? If they have asked these questions and couldn't get answers why have they not reported that story? And if they haven't even pursued this aspect of the story, why not?

Why do we have to rely on a newspaper, and Regents, in Des Moines to find out what's going on in Iowa City?

The Register's Chronology.

So how much has the Register dug up so far on the chronology?

Whatever is alleged to have happened occurred between 2:00 and 6:00 a.m. the morning of October 14.

Later that day, October 14, the UI Department of Public Safety received a "rape kit" from the UI Hospitals.

On October 23 two Hawkeye football players, whom Register sources say may have been with the complainant during the time in question, were removed from active participation on the team. The athletic program refused to provide any explanation at that time (or since, so far as I know) for their removal.

At 4:13 p.m. on November 5 a woman who wanted to report an assault "about three weeks ago" to the Iowa City Police was referred to the Campus Police.

By 4:50 p.m. that day, November 5, a report was received by the UI Department of Public Safety.

On November 7 that report became public. Department Director Chuck Green has been quoted as saying, "I assure you, before Nov. 7, we didn't know about this . . .."

On Wednesday, November 14, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agents joined Campus Police in searches of some Hillcrest dormitory rooms.

On Friday, November 16, five search warrants were sealed by Johnson County Judge Amanda Potterfield.

On Saturday, November 17, two of the Hawkeye football players whose room was searched (one of whom was earlier suspended from the team for drunken driving and later reinstated) both suited up for the Western Michigan game.
The Register provides names for most of its sources, and the players -- though not the name of their accuser -- along with specific dorm room numbers. For reasons explained in my prior blog entries I have chosen not to do that.

Will Gartner get an answer to his email? Will he share that answer with us? Will the Iowa City papers finally get on the story of administration action or inaction? When will the UI's spokesperson be permitted to announce that it is finally "the time when we need to have the public understand what happened," given that "now is not the time"?

Watch this space and see.

# # #

Friday, November 16, 2007

Trouble in River City

November 16, 2007, 8:00 a.m., 12:05 p.m.

Locker Room Update

What Can We Know, and When Can We Know It?

I discuss in the next section, below, issues surrounding the identity of the accuser and the accused. I respect, and support, the University's decision to make an effort to keep those names confidential at this point. I say "make an effort" because the names of the players are out there on the Internet for anyone who wants them, and I can't believe the name of the accuser is not well known among the hundreds of students residing in Hillcrest, and therefore by at least some enterprising reporters (though I may be wrong).

What I don't fully grasp are the reasons for refusing to respond to questions regarding the behavior, not of the athletes or their accuser, but of the University's and athletic program's administrators.

What did they know and when did they know it? What did they do about it? Did they comply with the procedures they themselves created for dealing with a situation like this? There are reports that the football coach told a sports reporter a couple of weeks ago that two of the players, now under investigation, had been dropped from the team (for reasons he did not disclose).

I'm not talking about revealing who by name came to them, or the content of any statements that were taken, or evidence obtained. I'm only suggesting that questions involving the integrity of the University's process need to be addressed, answered, and reported -- wholly independently of whatever does, or does not, come from the allegations now suspended in limbo regarding whatever did, or did not, occur on the evening of October 14.

If I'm wrong, if real harm would come to the players, or their accuser, or the integrity of a forthcoming trial would be compromised, by revealing what the administrators did and did not do that would be a persuasive reason for maintaining confidentiality regarding the details of administrative action or inaction.

If I'm right, I think the public deserves to know the answers and I can, offhand, see no reason why it can't know now. Indeed, if the responsible University officials went about whatever they did in a responsible, efficient and sensitive way, if they have nothing to be ashamed of, I would think they -- individually and as representatives of an institution -- would be substantially more advantaged by full disclosure rather than their current stonewalling strategy.

For the Press-Citizen's contribution to these issues in this morning's paper, see the discussion and quotations in the sub-head below, "Allocation of Administrative Responsibility."

Sean Keeler writes:

[T]he Hillcrest story has the kind of holes you could drive a truck through. No one's been arrested, let alone charged, but questions abound. If an incident allegedly occurred back on Oct. 14, why did it take three weeks for a report to be filed? How soon did Ferentz and his staff know about what might've transpired? How much did they know? What role did the upper levels of the Iowa administration play, if any?

Rumors linking certain Hawkeye players to a serious rhubarb of some kind had been floating for weeks, only to lay dormant while Iowa posted a three-game winning streak. . . .

"I think that if you ask any person representing a university, or corporation, or whatever entity it is," says Lapchick, director of the sports business management program at Central Florida. "If they had 10 percent of their employees, student-athletes or staff implicated in some form of activity that is designated as criminal, I would say, 'We've got to do something here.' "
Sean Keeler, "Ten (percent) sad number for Hawkeyes," Des Moines Register, November 16, 2007

Randy Peterson reports that Athletic Director Gary Barta characterizes these problems as "cyclical." Sounds kind of like the cicadas coming out of the ground every 17 years; not much you can do about it but wait for them to dig in again.

Anything more? Well, yes, he says "We'll double back and make sure we're educating." But as I noted yesterday ("Culling the Flock"), when a college freshman comes to campus with a record of anti-social and criminal behavior in high school, believing that "educating" him will eliminate the risk of continued problems in college is a real triumph of hope over experience -- as the recidivism rates in our prison system would seem to confirm.

As if that was not enough, consider the irony of Randy Peterson's noting,

Coincidentally, the alleged sexual assault against a female student is being investigated at the same time members of the Mentors In Violence Prevention group were on campus to speak to Iowa student-athletes about rape and sexual harassment.

"They were here this week," said Fred Mims, Iowa associate athletic director for student services and compliance. "Every year, we talk to our student-athletes about hazing and sexual harassment."
Randy Peterson, "Iowa football: Are Hawkeyes guilty of being out of control?," Des Moines Register, November 16, 2007.

Wouldn't you like for some enterprising reporter to find out, and report, just how much the University is paying "Mentors in Violence Prevention" for this annual service? What and where (other than from the firm's own promotional material) is the data regarding its effectiveness?

Privacy and the Press

The Register's decision to reveal names in its story yesterday raises some oft-debated issues of journalistic best practices, ethics -- and even defamation and privacy law.

On the one hand, the media may argue that it is the best check for the public -- investigating and providing information about both who is being investigated for what crimes in the community, as well as possible abuses of citizens' rights by law enforcement, or as in this instance, whether those with administrative responsibilities in the University and its athletic program handled the matter appropriately.

On the other hand, to name a potential accused (in this case someone being "investigated") -- before they've even been charged, let alone convicted -- clearly risks a significant adverse impact on their reputation in the event, as with the Duke Lacrosse players, they are subsequently not found guilty. At a minimum, it may taint a jury pool if a trial is ever held.

To report that someone is being investigated, if true, may not be sufficiently "false" to sustain an action for defamation. But given the popular inclination to assume that "where there's smoke there's fire" the impact on reputation may be almost indistinguishable from an assertion that "they did it."

For both similar and additional reasons, many publications (including the Register in this case) have a practice of not revealing the alleged victim's name. ((a)Publicizing a rape victim's name creates publicity and emotional stress sufficiently severe that it is sometimes characterized as "the second rape." (b) It clearly discourages reporting by others in the future. (c) It may create a real danger of future physical harm to the alleged victim. (d) And there is at least grounds for debate as to how essential it is to the story anyway.)

But even that rule is not always adhered to. Following the 1991 William Kennedy Smith case, the woman involved -- whose identity had been revealed by the press -- pleaded with NBC to change its policy of revealing rape victims' names. The network refused. Then NBC News President (now President of our Board of Regents) Michael Gartner was reported as responding, by way of defense of the policy, "the more we tell our viewers, the better informed they'll be in making up their own minds about the issues involved." USA Today, April 29, 1992, p. D3.

The Gazette explained this morning its policy regarding the failure to reveal the names of the players:

No arrests have been made, but rumors swirled about the alleged perpetrators’ and victim’s identities. Some media reported names connected to the assault. The Gazette has chosen not to reveal them until more about their possible involvement is clear.

“We’ve been asked not to comment as long as the investigation is active,” UI spokesman Steve Parrott added.

Thursday, UI students reacted with the most tempered emotion — caution.

“I don’t really know how much evidence they have against (the players). Their names are out there for a sexual assault. That seems kind of harsh,” said Meg Konzelman, a freshman from Joliet, Ill., who knows one of the players who was questioned.
Scott Dochterman and Jennifer Hemmingsen, "Warrant sealed in UI sex assault; Rumors about roles of players consume campus community," The Gazette, November 17, 2007, p. A1.

Allocation of Administrative Responsibility:
"You have to respect the athletics director's opinion . . . and trust that person"

Ashton Shurson wrote last June 26,

When UI President Sally Mason accepted her new position last week, she made sure to demonstrate her support for Iowa sports by shouting "Go Hawks."

But just cheering on the team isn't enough for the president -- both the president and the athletics department work together to make sure the department runs smoothly.

"It's the front porch to the university," said UI interim President Gary Fethke. "Many people view the university through the eyes of athletics."

Although the athletics department functions primarily on its own, the university president and Athletics Director Gary Barta meet regularly and make decisions about sports together.

But before partnerships begin, a president must hire the director -- which Fethke considers "the most important thing a president can do."

. . .

"My job is to make sure there are no surprises for the president," Barta said.

. . .

"You have to respect the athletics director's opinion and point of view and trust that person," Fethke said.
Ashton Shurson, "Mason, Barta Set to Work Together," The Daily Iowan, June 26, 2007.

This morning's Press-Citizen quotes the UI President as saying, "Yes, I'm confident that [Barta] has the right values and that the integrity of our athletics department is uppermost in his mind." Brian Morelli, "Mason Backs Officials' Response; Officials Not Saying if Protocols Were Followed," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 16, 2007, p. A1.

Is this an example of what is meant by "respect the athletics director's opinion . . . and trust that person"?

Morelli's lead is: "[T]he University of Iowa is not saying whether officials have followed the proper internal procedures . . .." He notes that no UI officlal has been willing to answer the paper's questions, including: "Did the victim or the football players report the alleged assault to other UI officials before it was reported to police?"

Clearly, confidence in Barta's "values" and his concern for his department's "integrity" is far from a response to that question.

At least UI Police Director Charles Green and Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness have had the candor to acknowledge that they "absolutely were not aware of the incident until the victim reported it to our department on Nov. 7" (Green), and were "notified of the incident last week" (Lyness).

The Press-Citizen also provides links to the relevant University documents:

Initial Notification Procedures for Student Athlete Incidents

Resouce and Referral Options for Victims of Sexual Assault

Sexual Harassment or Assault Action Steps

Not incidentally, given that we are told "
the president and the athletics department work together," though I may have missed something I don't see that any of these three documents include the UI president anywhere in the chain of reporting.

Aside from that, the procedures do seem to be pretty clear. Were they followed? And why are all of those who are in a position to know the answer to that question not talking?

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Culling the Flock

November 15, 2007, 6:30, 8:45 a.m., 12:20 p.m.

How About Them Hawks?!

There's lots to be said about the latest news from the locker room: Three Hawkeye football players are being investigated for sexual assault. See, e.g., Lee Hermiston, "UI football players under investigation; 3 Hawks questioned in alleged sexual assault," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 15, 2007, p. A1. For more detail see, Tom Witosky and Mason Kerns, "UI Football: Players Questioned in Case," Des Moines Register, November 15, 2007.

But the bottom line most significant -- and most constructive and helpful -- comment is contained in the commentary of Press-Citizen sports reporter Ryan Suchomel, "Hawks Face More Woes," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 15, 2007, p. B1.

The answer is to be found in a single sentence toward the end of his column: "He [Hawkeye football coach Kirk Ferentz] may have to reevaluate the young men he's inviting to campus."

Isn't that what it's all about?

Remember the 1970s computer observation that you can't get any better out of a computer than what you put into it ("GIGO," or "garbage in, garbage out")?

Well, the same thing applies to the ingredients you use when cooking -- or the athletes you bring to Iowa City to play football. It's true in terms of their on-field performance. And it's true of their off-field performance.

Athletes are coddled by our educational systems, and broader society, from the time they're in junior high. Adults respond to these young athletes' abusive and criminal behavior with something between excuses and encouragement, and the wink-and-a-nod of a blind eye. So there's a need to look at ourselves, as well as our athletes, when -- as UI's Athletic Director Gary Barta puts it -- they make "bad decisions" once in college.

But even if they have been spared formal criminal records when high school athletes as a result of coaches' and administrators' interventions, it is still possible to find out what their informal records may have been. Many people in their community will know, and some references, and a goodly number of others, will be willing to talk. A skillful and sensitive recruiter should be able to do this while casting a big enough net to get a full range of views, respecting recruits' privacy and reputations, and separating facts from fantasies and gossip.

Of course, the recruiter needs to know about the recruit's athletic performance. But he or she also needs to find out, even focus on, their academic performance -- and their anti-social and criminal performance.

When you bring on the campus an athlete who has a high school record of theft, gang membership, sexual assault, drunken behavior, bullying and general violence, you can't legitimately later express mere surprise and disappointment when that pattern of behavior continues. Clearly, given the 12 football players convicted, charged or under investigation during the past six months, the AD's and coaches' belief that the answer is to be found in providing more and better "education" once they get here has not worked in the past and is unlikely to work any better in the future.

[An Anonymous comment, below, takes issue with a couple of points in the preceding paragraph.
(1) Referring to "12 . . . convicted, charged or under investigation" "sounds a lot worse" than it is, says Anonymous. However, this morning The Gazette reports "In all, 11 Hawkeyes have been arrested since April." Marc Morehouse, "Iowa Football: Barta Says He's Taking Investigation Seriously," The Gazette, November 15, 2007. The Register agrees: "11 players are known to have had interaction with police for alleged law-breaking." "Barta Vows to Revisit How Football Players are Educated," Des Moines Register, November 15, 2007. Does that make it sound any better? If "11" includes the current 3 then my "12" is one over. If it doesn't, then the number is 14 instead of 12.
(2) He or she asks, "Who are the players you are referring to as having history of gang affiliation . . . ?" I thought the point was clear from the context, but if not it's important enough to remove any possible ambiguity. I am not referring in the paragraph to any player now on the Iowa team. The paragraph is in a context of, and relates to, the need to do a better job of vetting recruits in the future, because if any of them have any of the itemized items in their high school record that should raise a concern that their past behavior might be continued in college.
(3) He or she continues, "I am also of the belief of innocent until proven guilty." Me, too. Indeed, as I had already noted three paragraphs below: "But let us also not forget the lessons of the Duke Lacrosse case. An accusation, an allegation, an investigation, is not a conviction."]
It is not enough that our recruits are outstanding athletes among the flock of high school football players in any given year. That flock needs to be culled ahead of time of those who will bring as much by way of trouble as touchdowns to the UI campus.

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The Press-Citizen editorializes this morning, "Unfortunately, UI has been down this road before. And the specter of how the university mishandled the 2002 Pierce Pierce case will cast a large shadow over how the university reacts to this allegation. Hopefully, the university has learned from its mistakes in that case . . .." Editorial, "UI Needs to Show It's Learned from Past Mistakes," November 15, 2007, p. A7.

But let us also not forget the lessons of the Duke Lacrosse case. An accusation, an allegation, an investigation, is not a conviction.

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For reasons that may or may not be as obvious to you as they are to me, the following two stories also seem relevant to today's blog entry:

1. Is partying by "the less motivated" -- whether by football players or others -- how we want to be known as a university? It goes with the territory when we offer only rhetoric on the issue of binge drinking. An excerpt:

The University of Iowa has cracked the top 25.

No, not in football or men's or women's basketball. UI is among the nation's elite when it comes to partying. UI came in at No. 24 in the second annual Power Rankings, which "gives best marks to schools with the least class."

"A top 25 ranking says to me, if I am a student going to college and maybe not interested in working too hard, the University of Iowa would be a pretty solid place for me to go," said Streeter Seidell, front page editor of "A respectable rank indeed."

"The list is dedicated solely to a less motivated type of students who just want a place to go enjoy the fruits of his parents' labor for the next four to six years," promotional materials for the ratings declare.
Brian Morelli, "Iowa Makes the Grade in Partying; Site Ranks UI No. 24," Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 15, 2007, p. A1.

2. It doesn't stop at high school and college. An excerpt from today's news about OJ's latest caper:

LAS VEGAS -- O.J. Simpson will stand trial on kidnapping, armed robbery and other felony charges stemming from a purported attempt to recover his sports memorabilia, a justice of the peace ruled Wednesday.

The former NFL running back, who has been a tabloid mainstay since being acquitted of murder more than a decade ago, and two codefendants each face 12 charges. If convicted on all counts, they could be sentenced to life in prison.
Ashley Powers, "Simpson Will Stand Trial Again," Los Angeles Times, November 15, 2007.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Of Straw and Strikes

November 14, 2007, 8:30 a.m.

The Writers' Strike and Media's Future

John Barleykorn, who has assumed the daunting task of trying to keep me honest in these blog entries, has now posed a question (in a comment added to yesterday's blog entry about Barbara and Bill Richardson at the JJ Dinner) regarding the Writers Guild strike:

John Barleykorn said...

What are your thoughts on the SWG strike? I think they are taking a risk here. My fear is that you will get a lot more "reality" TV shows, and when the strike ends, less work for writers. My advice to someone young is to write and produce it yourself over the internet.

11/13/2007 07:37:00 PM
I knew Ann Landers and her daughter, but I have not chosen to follow her example with this blog -- where I provide a virtually uncensored opportunity for readers' comments, but do not assume responsibility for responding to them.

Knowing something of the challenges confronting the Los Angeles creative community, however, and with appreciation for John's efforts as a one-man truth squad, I've decided to make an exception.

His question reminds me of an experience with an Iowa farmer, and the wisdom contained in an airline magazine ad.

While running for Congress in Iowa's old Third District some 30 years ago, I was living in a farmhouse in the Kesley, Iowa, suburbs during some cold north-Iowa months. Unfortunately, the warmth of the local residents was not matched by the warmth of the largely-uninsulated house. So I decided to put some straw bales around the outside. I borrowed a pickup truck and followed the directions to the farm where I'd been told I could buy some bales. When I asked the owner what he wanted for my truck load he allowed as how 75c a bale would be just fine. I pointed out that the market price was more like $1.25, and that 75c was not fair. He resisted, but we ultimately settled on $1.00 a bale.

I love that story and would sing it to the strains of John Lennon's "Imagine" if I could write lyrics -- and sing.

But the fact is that the commercial world is better represented by that airline magazine ad you must have seen if you've ever flown. The headline reads, "You get what you negotiate." Or perhaps we should have understood that, before we even reached the West Coast, from the country song's lyrics, "All the gold in California is in a bank in Beverly Hills in somebody else's name."

Few members of Writers Guild-West, or the Screen Actors Guild -- let alone their contract negotiators -- have ever confronted a producer, or studio representative, insisting that the actors or writers really ought to be paid more, given the importance of their role in the production.

The creative community has had to fight, to strike, to go without, for everything they've ever received. They've had to learn to take a share of the gross rather than the net, because after the accountants are through with the numbers there never is any net.

With everybody taking a share of their pay, one actor in a top-rated TV series told me that she often ended up with something on the order of 10% of what the fan magazines said she was being paid -- agents, managers, business managers, publicists, lawyers, accountants and others were the ones putting their share of her "gold in California" into "a bank in Beverly Hills" in their names, not hers. I knew of two actors whose business managers left California, each with over $100,000 of theirs that neither woman ever saw again. And don't get me started about the recording industry.

So what's the strike about this time? Both the actors and writers have more than once ended up one generation behind the technology curve. That's where they find themselves once again.

Here's an analogy. Suppose you write, and are paid for, a stage play. Much to your surprise, along comes something called motion pictures, and you find your play put to film -- creating a second profit for the producer, but no fair share of that second profit for you. So next time you contract for your play you include a provision that you will be paid an additional sum if it is used in a film. So far so good, but how could you have imagined the coming of something called television? Once again, you find your creative writing producing additional revenue for somebody -- but not for you. So the next contract includes reference to television -- but, alas, says nothing about your rights to a share of the profits from videotape. You get the picture.

So today's "next big thing" is whatever the Internet ends up becoming.

Nobody knows for sure. What's already apparent, however, is that technologically -- with or without another couple orders of magnitude increase in bandwidth -- a very large proportion of the "radio" and "CDs" you'd want to listen to, the "television" you'd want to watch, is available on any WiFi-connected laptop. Networks are streaming their programming -- giving you, in effect, a free TiVo service in the bargain (the ability to listen, or watch, whenever it fits into your schedule, not theirs). They are producing three-minute "programs" to be viewed on your cell phone. The possibilities are endless.

The potential revenue is not.

The writers, understandably in this "fool me once, shame on you" scenario, want to make sure it doesn't happen to them again. They want a fair price for those bales of straw they create, now that it turns out they can be sold five times instead of just once.

The producers and studios, on the other hand -- those five firms that control all the world's media -- want to make sure they don't promise to pay out to the writers a revenue stream that never ends up materializing.

John Barleykorn says, "My advice to someone young is to write and produce it yourself over the internet." "Someone young" is already taking that advice. It's called YouTube. But at this point in time, writing and producing it yourself over the Internet is going to require that the "someone young" get a day job parking cars or waiting on tables -- as young folks in LA have been doing for years -- if they intend to pay rent and eat.

The networks no longer share 95% of the television-watching audience as they did in pre-cable days. It's more like half that. But even at half that, the networks' ratings, and the box office revenue for American films -- around the world, not just in this country -- is proof that, reality shows or not, there remains a strong market demand for the American creative product of LA's professionals.

One of my actor friends, whose Motion Picture Academy card could get us into theaters anywhere, used to insist that as a matter of respect for the industry I stay and watch the credits role at the end of the film. It's a practice I've continued to this day -- even though the credits get longer every year. This is an extraordinary industry we have, only made possible with hundreds of skills and thousands of talented people (including, of course, that of the producers). One that, in addition to boosting our spirits and making us laugh and cry, also is one of the few industries that makes a positive contribution to our balance of payments.

So I'm not concerned that, at least ultimately, there will be "less work for writers."

Whose side am I on in this strike?

Take a guess, John, and thanks for the question.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Richardsons at JJ Dinner Nov. 10

November 13, 2007, 8:45 a.m.

As if there weren't enough pictures already from the Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner in Des Moines last Saturday evening, November 10, here are some more -- with primary emphasis on the pre-dinner gathering of Governor Bill Richardson's supporters, with the Governor and his wife Barbara, along with Senator Jovial Joe Biden's visit to those of us in the nosebleed section (the only candidate who reached those heights -- at least where I was sitting), now posted to my public Picasa site.

Also present, and pictured, were the leaders of Iowa STAR*PAC (Stop the Arms Race Political Action Committee of Iowa), who explained to the wall-to-wall crowd why they were endorsing Richardson for President, the Unser brothers of Indianapolis 500 championship fame (ditto), and one of the many captured Americans for whom Richardson negotiated release, John Early (ditto).

All in all, it was an event that fully rivaled the dinner that followed.

In addition, if you weren't there, or left before the night ran out, regardless of who you're thinking of supporting you really do need to watch Senator Obama's speech.

And, as always, the John Deeth Blog is the best source for a detailed report on the evening.

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