- Associated Press - Thursday, March 26, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Gov. Terry Branstad’s pick to chair the Iowa Utilities Board acknowledged Thursday she has a potential conflict in a hotly-contested case on whether to build a major oil pipeline.

Geri Huser’s brother has represented farmers who oppose the $3.8 billion pipeline that would transport crude oil from North Dakota across Iowa. In December, he sent a letter to the board objecting to the project on letterhead from a family law firm listing his sister as one of its attorneys.

Huser said she knew that her brother was representing landowners facing eminent domain, but was unaware it was linked to the pipeline. She said she didn’t know about the objection letter with her name on it in the case file until The Associated Press inquired Wednesday.

State rules say that administrative law judges must be disqualified from cases involving relatives or if they have a “personal bias or prejudice concerning a party,” among other reasons.

Huser’s brother, R. Bradley Skinner, said he recently withdrew from representing the landowners, William and Kathleen Gannon, who own a central Iowa farm that the pipeline would run through. Skinner said he did so to avoid “the appearance of an impropriety” when he learned Branstad was planning to appoint his sister.

Huser, who sometimes works at the firm’s Altoona office, said she hasn’t received income or held an ownership interest in it since August 2011. She said she lists the firm in state-mandated financial disclosures since it’s closely associated with her family.

Board general counsel David Lynch, who flagged the objection letter earlier this month as a potential issue, said Wednesday that state rules would require Huser to recuse herself if her brother’s firm continued to participate. Lynch said Thursday that Skinner’s withdrawal was “news to me” and wasn’t communicated to the board. He said he now saw no basis for Huser’s disqualification but noted that parties could file motions seeking her removal.

Huser said she hasn’t decided whether she would disclose the conflict and participate in the case, or step aside. She said she will conduct a “full due diligence check” for possible conflicts, including her father’s prior legal work for MidAmerican Energy, if confirmed by the Senate.

“I know that I will serve independently and without conflict on these issues,” she said.

Branstad appointed Huser, a former state representative, on March 2 to replace Sheila Tipton in a surprise shakeup on the three-member board that would also demote the current chair, Elizabeth Jacobs.

Tipton had recused herself from another major case, involving a proposed wind energy transmission line, because she was the company’s lawyer before joining the board. Answering questions about why Tipton wasn’t reappointed as expected, Centers said Branstad believes “Iowans are best-served by having three members that are able to weigh in on important issues affecting them.”

Given that comment, it would be ironic if Tipton’s replacement had to withdraw from the pipeline case, said former board chair Diane Munns. Having only two members would pose a problem if they deadlocked. But if Huser participates despite objections, that decision could be appealed in court, Munns said.

“You are entitled to an impartial decision maker, but they would have to make a connection that it would create bias,” she said.

The Senate commerce committee endorsed Huser for a six-year appointment Tuesday.

The board is reviewing the proposal to build a pipeline that would ship 450,000 barrels daily from production sites in North Dakota to an oil hub in Illinois. Dakota Access LLC is seeking permission to build through private properties, using eminent domain if necessary. A vote could come later this year.

Environmentalists and many landowners oppose the project, citing harm to farmland and the threat of spills. Supporters say the plan would create jobs and increase domestic oil supplies.

Skinner said his family had been friends with the Gannons for decades going back to his father, the late Ed Skinner, a prominent Democrat and lawyer. William Gannon, of Mingo, is a former Democratic legislator and gubernatorial candidate.

“Like thousands of other farmers, it’s going to go right smack through their farm,” Skinner said.

His objection letter noted that Branstad “has never endorsed this pipeline” and asked the company to turn over communications with the governor’s office, among other demands.

Skinner said that in January, the Gannons ordered pipeline representatives conducting survey work to get off of their property. Skinner said he communicated with a pipeline attorney and eventually granted the workers access, their right under Iowa law.

Huser said she has discussed removing her name from the firm’s letterhead with Skinner.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide