IOWA CITY, Iowa ― The University of Iowa has quietly awarded several no-bid contracts totaling $321,900 to a prominent GOP consultant for polling and social media services often delivered through subcontractors, a review by The Associated Press discovered.
Critics say the contracts with former Iowa Republican Party chairman Matt Strawn’s namesake company ― uncovered through a public records request ― look like a sweetheart deal among Republican insiders and a potential waste of money. The university sidestepped a policy that normally requires competitive bidding to ensure services are obtained at the lowest cost by claiming Strawn’s company was providing a unique service.
But the university’s former vice president of strategic communication said he had no idea that Strawn had the contracts. And some of the money has gone for statewide opinion polling that the university is refusing to make public, saying doing so would “serve no public purpose.”
“Is this ineptitude on the part of university personnel or is it conscious cronyism?” asked Iowa Democratic activist Julie Stauch, who has experience in polling and campaigns. She said she believed the university was overpaying by passing contracts through The Strawn Co., an arrangement that can increase costs by 15 percent.
University spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said Strawn’s company was chosen because it “provided better communication options across multiple platforms” than others and political relationships weren’t a factor. She said the company was “having a positive impact” on the university’s image and helps develop messages to engage constituents.
Strawn said his services were adding value, while acknowledging that polling, focus groups and some social media consulting were coordinated through two vendors with prominent Republican Party ties. His company is paid from university donations.
Joseph Brennan, the university’s recently departed vice president of strategic communication, said he never heard Strawn’s name during his two-year tenure. He thought the contracts were directly through polling firm Wilson Perkins Allen and digital media advocacy startup Wholecrowd. Brennan said he worked with those companies and they provided valuable services, but was stunned to learn of Strawn’s behind-the-scenes role from the AP.
“It doesn’t look good. It looks like enriching your buddies,” Brennan said. “I’m a big end-user of this stuff. And I never had one meeting with him?”
The contracts, which have been expanded and extended over 2½ years, are managed by UI vice president for external relations Peter Matthes, a former Iowa Senate Republican Caucus staff director. Strawn’s tenure as GOP chairman from 2009 to 2012 partly overlapped with Matthes’ time at the statehouse and coincided with the comeback of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who has praised Strawn’s leadership as chairman and since appointed the university’s entire governing board.
Strawn’s company was hired for online and grassroots advocacy in spring 2013 under a $24,900 contract ― below the $25,000 threshold that triggers a requirement to request quotes from vendors. Wholecrowd ― founded by Jim Anderson, executive director of the Iowa Republican Party during the 2010 cycle ― has performed some of that work. Wholecrowd provides software that helps clients identify and engage supporters on social media.
Strawn, a UI graduate, said in a statement that his “knowledge of how Iowans react and respond to different messaging maximizes (Wholecrowd’s) unique capabilities on behalf of the university.”
In fall 2013, the university decided to conduct statewide polling in an effort to understand and improve its image. Rather than seek bids, it obtained a waiver to give the work to Strawn’s company, saying the polling would complement Wholecrowd’s social media engagement and create “a seamless communication system that no other vendor can replicate.”
Brennan ― who has 25 years’ experience in higher education marketing ― said numerous firms could have conducted the polling. University policy says sole-source contracts are allowed when “no other known person or firm is available with an equivalent service.”
The university directed Strawn to find a pollster with higher education experience. He turned to prominent Texas-based Republican pollster Chris Perkins, whose firm has also worked for universities and businesses. When UI decided to conduct focus group research, that work was also given to The Strawn Co. and done by Perkins.
The university has paid Strawn’s company $249,900 for two polls, 2½ years of social media consulting and at least two focus group sessions ― and will soon owe an additional $72,500 for another poll conducted by Wilson Perkins Allen last month. UI refused to release poll findings under the public records law, citing an exemption for reports that “would give advantage to competitors and serve no public purpose.”