AP Exclusive: Iowa regulator keeps busy private law practice

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A powerful Iowa regulator has maintained a busy and profitable private legal practice even though a law mandates she devote her “whole time” to state business, a review by The Associated Press shows.

Iowa Utilities Board Chairwoman Geri Huser has been involved in 50 cases as an attorney during her two-year tenure, signing scores of filings and occasionally appearing at hearings during normal workhours. Judges have awarded her firm at least $177,000 in fees for her cases during that period.

An appointee of Gov. Terry Branstad and former Democratic state representative, Huser holds a job that includes regulating the service and rates of electric and gas utilities and reviewing plans for pipelines and transmission lines. As chairwoman of the three-member board, Huser has extra administrative duties and earns a $128,900 salary.

Under Huser, the board has approved eminent domain for the Dakota Access pipeline, major wind energy developments and rules on how utilities charge for customer-owned solar installations. She’s also managed to handle a variety of legal cases through a family firm, Skinner Law Office, an Altoona business she had distanced herself from when facing a potential conflict over the pipeline.

Clients have included a widow who claims her stepchildren are mismanaging a $4.5 million estate, the brother of an incapacitated man seeking to become his guardian, and a mobile home park who filed a small claims action against tenants. Most of her cases have involved administering estates, which includes distributing assets among heirs and takes months to complete.

State spokesmen denied that Huser’s work conflicted with the law specifying that regulators “shall devote the member’s whole time to the duties of the office.”

But prior members who were lawyers, such as Sheila Tipton, have left their firms. And Richard Lozier, Branstad’s appointee for a term beginning May 1, said Monday he would withdraw from his law firm if confirmed.

State government observers said Huser’s extensive outside work was unusual and potentially problematic. The arrangement raises questions about whether Huser can be working full-time and “creates real potential for conflicts of interest,” said colleges’ lobbyist Gary Steinke, who opposed Huser’s decision to withhold funding from university research centers.

“Wow,” he said of AP’s findings.

Huser, 53, declined an interview request. But board spokesman Don Tormey said she works full-time and that her legal work is allowed. Branstad appreciates Huser’s leadership and is aware of her outside employment, spokesman Ben Hammes said.

Tormey said members can engage in outside activities that don’t conflict with board work, noting that past regulators have farmed and driven taxis. He said Huser’s court filings — 500 since joining the board May 1, 2015— are made by assistants and that she handles time off for hearings through “flex scheduling, vacation and unpaid leave.”

Huser has appeared in at least five hearings, including March 9 at the Dallas County courthouse in Adel, representing a farm widow who alleges that her late husband’s children improperly sought to evict her, removed a truck by gunpoint and locked her out of buildings. Huser asked a judge to appoint a neutral party to manage the estate. Another hearing’s expected to be set soon.

Huser’s firm has been awarded $177,244 in attorneys’ fees in cases on which she’s been a primary attorney since joining the board and expects to be awarded $20,000 more in four pending estates, filings show. Fee information isn’t available in several other cases.

Estate lawyers are often awarded 2 percent of the assets, the most allowed by law. But they can also petition judges to award “extraordinary fees” for additional services such as real estate and tax issues — compensation Huser received in two recent cases. Fees vary based on estate size, and Huser’s awards have ranged from $1,300 to $30,000.

Huser has disclosed her outside work as required but downplayed her ties to Skinner Law Office when facing a potential conflict of interest with the pipeline.

Attorney Bradley Skinner, her brother, filed an objection on behalf of landowners weeks before Huser joined the board, on letterhead that listed Huser as a firm attorney. Huser and Skinner said the letterhead was outdated and that Huser no longer worked there, having sold her ownership interest in 2011. “I don’t get any income and am not paid by them,” Huser said, saying her work was done through a separate firm she owns.

Huser declined to recuse, saying it wasn’t a conflict after her brother stopped representing the landowners. She later voted to approve the pipeline. Today, she calls herself a partner in the firm.

Ed Fallon, a pipeline opponent, said Huser’s outside work raised questions.

“The chairmanship of the utilities board is a full-time position,” he said. “Some of us would argue it pays too much. But you wouldn’t think it would allow you time for a second job.”


Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter at twitter.com/rjfoley