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Leaders of Forest Project Mum on Spending
They Decline to Elaborate on How They Have Used $3 Million of Taxpayers' Money

Perry Beeman

Des Moines Register

November 12, 2005

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

Backers of the Coralville rain forest project declined this week to say exactly how they have spent nearly $3 million in taxpayers' money.

David Oman, executive director of the Environmental Project, said the organization filed documents with the federal government about how it spent $2.9 million in U.S. Department of Energy money, but he provided no details.

Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa who in 2003 arranged the project's $50 million federal grant, introduced a bill to freeze further spending of the tax money until Oman's group matches the entire grant with private donations. The grant has faced widespread criticism as an example of frivolous spending.

Grassley, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, who still supports the project, put the group on notice Wednesday, saying he wanted to assure that the money was not "frittered away by not having the project in place someday." Grassley won congressional approval for language that gives the organization until December 2007 to match the $50 million or lose the grant altogether. Grassley's office said Friday that it did not have a detailed accounting of the spending to date.

Asked to provide those details, Oman referred to documents filed with the federal government. He didn't offer to provide copies of them, but an Internet search turned up reports filed with the U.S. Department of Energy. The filings provide only general information.

A breakdown of $1.1 million drawn from the grant in 2004 showed that $417,155 went to unspecified "administration," and $581,731 to "architecture/engineering" that wasn't detailed. The remaining $55,727 was spent on "pre-construction" work that wasn't itemized on the report.

In the first quarter of this year, the group spent $441,239 of the grant. An activity summary mentioned meetings with state grant staff, submitting documents to two unnamed Fortune 10 companies, and "project rebudgeting."

A summary of work between July 1 and Sept. 30 of this year indicated $924,746.60 was spent but didn't detail the outlays.

The documents announced no new financing. Oman said an energy company's pledge of "up to $10 million" is all the project has toward matching the grant.

Another document, a 2003 tax form submitted last year, reports Oman's salary as $175,424 at the time but doesn't detail other staff pay. Other government documents indicated pay at the rain forest would range from $9 an hour to "over $100,000."

Kathleen Richardson, who directs the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said that the nonprofit Iowa Child Institute that runs the rain forest project isn't legally required to release much information, but that Iowans expect more than they get.

"I would gather there is widespread public interest in it and how it has spent the government money it has received so far," Richardson said. "I get a lot of calls from Iowans outraged because they didn't realize that just because a museum or other private organization receives government money, that doesn't mean it is automatically subject to the Iowa open-records law. It goes against Iowans' sense of accountability, and they do get outraged about it."

The rain forest, like many other nonprofits, is not subject to the open-records law in the same way, say, a city council is.

Besides the $50 million grant, Oman's private group persuaded Coralville to spend millions of dollars assembling and clearing a 22-acre site along Interstate Highway 80 for the $180 million rain forest, aquarium and educational project. Supporters of the project, which is the brainchild of Des Moines businessman Ted Townsend, say they will open in 2009 and expect to draw 1.1 million visitors each year.

"I think they should be more accountable for their money," said Deb Larson of Iowa City. "I don't think it will be as big of an economic draw to the area as they think it will be. I don't foresee people coming from all over."

Destiny Burns of Iowa City said that she hasn't heard much lately about the project and that she would like to know more.

"I think it would be successful, but only if it gets the proper funding," Burns said. "It could bring lots of people to Iowa."

Events: Highlights of the rain forest project during the past few months,
according to the group's report to the federal government:

Two members of a Fortune 10 company flew to Des Moines to meet with the Iowa Department of Economic Development and rain forest staff about the project.

The group hired Grimshaw Architects to lead design work after a falling out with the original architects. The report didn't say how much Grimshaw would be paid. Grimshaw handled the Eden Project in England, something of a model for the Iowa rain forest. Grimshaw already has held a series of work sessions in Des Moines.

"Project staff continued to establish and develop relationships with potential donors, in and beyond Iowa," the report said. It didn't name any potential donors.

The group worked with Coralville on the land deal, which still hasn't been signed.

Speakers addressed the Marion Kiwanis and Iowa City Downtown Rotary.