Top aide to Iowa governor working as family’s expert witness
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A top aide to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds is working as a paid expert witness in a private property lawsuit, backing a family that is seeking millions of dollars from neighbors in a commercial zoning dispute.
The side work as a $350-per-hour plaintiffs’ witness by Department of Administrative Services Director Jim Kurtenbach is unusual for an agency leader but appears to be allowed under state law. Still, his testimony supporting a family pushing to develop an Ames campground over the objections of neighbors could give the appearance that the state executive branch — or at least an official who helps lead it — is taking sides in a local property rights matter.
Adding to the potential for a conflict is a misstatement about his state job on Kurtenbach’s résumé, which was submitted in a court filing last week. Kurtenbach wrote that the department he leads is the “primary entity charged in the Code of Iowa with representing the State in legal matters,” among other duties.
That role would potentially bolster the weight of Kurtenbach’s legal conclusions but it isn’t true, as the attorney general’s office, not the Department of Administrative Services, represents the state in legal matters. Instead, his department oversees human resources, accounting, payroll, purchasing, building management and other functions for the executive branch.
Kurtenbach, a former Iowa State University accounting professor and administrator , did not respond to messages seeking comment. His department warns state job applicants that “knowingly misrepresenting any information” on their résumés will result in their disqualification.
A spokesman for the governor did not comment on Kurtenbach’s résumé but said that Kurtenbach disclosed his work on the case before his appointment to the agency in June and that he would “need to complete that obligation on his own time.” An attorney general’s office spokesman declined to comment.
Iowa ethics law generally allows state employees to hold outside jobs as long as they are unrelated to their work and do not use state resources.
“Your outside employment must not conflict with the interests of your agency or interfere with the performance of your job duties with the State,” according to the employee handbook published by Kurtenbach’s agency.
Kurtenbach is working on behalf of Brad and Gina Perkins, who opened the Raspberry Hill Bed and Breakfast in Ames last year. The couple has sought zoning changes to convert some of the property into an events venue and a campground with 20 cabins and 10 spots for recreational vehicles.
Neighbors James and Teresa Palensky have opposed the project, citing traffic, safety, noise and other concerns. They filed lawsuits challenging conditional use permits that were granted by the Story County Board of Adjustment for the project. Judges have thrown out the permits, citing procedural errors, and sent the matters back for further proceedings.
The Perkinses have separately sued the Palenskys, arguing that the neighbors’ opposition has delayed their ability to obtain financing and start their business. They’re seeking damages that could be $2 million or more.
The Perkinses are represented by attorney Jeffrey Goodman, a campaign donor to the governor who has helped select candidates for state judicial positions. Their team retained Kurtenbach, who has expertise in financial analysis and sits on the board of a local bank, to bolster their claims.
Kurtenbach issued a preliminary report days before his June appointment and then a more detailed one last week, signaling that he would stay on the case despite his state job. His report concluded that the Perkinses would have received bank financing and would be operating a profitable business if not for the neighbors’ interference, estimating they have lost $1.2 million in income and counting.
Kurtenbach is expected to face a deposition and to testify at the trial, which is scheduled to begin in February. He disclosed that he is earning $350 per hour for his analysis and testimony and $200 for time spent traveling, attending meetings and waiting to testify.
Joseph Cacciatore, a lawyer for the Palenskys, called Kurtenbach’s preliminary report “vacuous,” saying he didn’t have enough information to conclude that the Perkinses were qualified to obtain loans. Kurtenbach’s revenue estimates for the business appeared to be pulled “out of thin air,” wrote Cacciatore, who hasn’t responded to Kurtenbach’s more detailed recent report.
Cacciatore has called the Perkinses’ lawsuit “an ill-conceived act of vindictiveness and intimidation,” saying his clients have the right to seek judicial review of zoning decisions. But Judge John Haney recently denied the Palenskys’ motion to dismiss the case, saying jurors should decide the claims.