AMES, Iowa — A prominent agricultural law expert used his position at Iowa State University to collect $278,000 in consulting fees after school officials failed to manage his conflict of interest for years, auditors said Tuesday.
Roger McEowen, the former director of the ISU Center for Agricultural Law and Taxation, was paid for more than 100 seminars and speeches that he conducted on university time and using the center’s staff and materials, according to a report from the state auditor. Instead of depositing the money with the center, it went to his business, which offered the same educational and legal services that McEowen received $140,000 a year from ISU to perform.
The center, part of the university’s highly regarded statewide outreach service, was created in 2006 to provide information on agricultural law to farmers and businesses and educational training to professionals. McEowen, who formed his business shortly after joining Iowa State in 2004, was its first director.
The university requested the audit in May 2015 after receiving a complaint alleging he often missed work to run his business. He was placed on leave in December and resigned in January.
McEowen listed his business on annual disclosure forms required by the university, saying that it gave legal and tax advice, ran seminars and performed other consulting work. He noted the subjects overlapped with issues he researched in his university duties. But administrators took his word that the arrangement didn’t create a conflict of interest and failed to develop a management plan that would have ensured his university work and consulting were separate and appropriate, the report said.
Instead, McEowen violated numerous policies designed to ensure employees are not improperly using public resources for personal gain, auditors said, adding “it was not difficult” for him to promote the interests of his private business.
McEowen also falsified some expense reports by claiming reimbursement for mileage that he didn’t drive, had the center create a temporary job for his daughter and hosted expensive summer seminars at luxurious resorts in Lake Tahoe, California and Estes Park, Colorado that provided little benefit to Iowa residents, auditors said.
Iowa State spokesman John McCarroll said the university is reviewing its “processes regarding conflicts of interest, fiscal responsibilities and proper accounting and management of personal businesses.” The university also will wait for prosecutors to determine whether to bring criminal charges before taking any steps to seek restitution.
McEowen, who didn’t respond to messages for comment, conceded to auditors that his center and business had become comingled. He is now tax director for the agribusiness group of consulting firm CliftonLarsonAllen and a law professor at Washburn University in Kansas.
By the time concerns were raised about his possible conflict of interest, McEowen was lobbying university officials to allow him to privatize the center and expand nationwide, a proposal the provost said wouldn’t have been approved.
Auditors discovered 108 events from 2009 to 2015 in which McEowen kept fees that should have been deposited with the school. In each instance, McEowen wasn’t on university leave, including vacation, used materials that had been developed by the center and gave his university email as his contact information.
For another 70 paid events, auditors were unable to determine if the funds should have gone to the university.
Many of the events were sponsored and paid for by universities with agricultural ties, most frequently Kansas State University.