IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — An outgoing regent has long been a director for a national furniture company but failed to publicly disclose that relationship before its local distributor signed a major no-bid contract with the University of Iowa last year, records show.
Manufacturing executive and Republican donor Mary Andringa abruptly resigned Wednesday from the Iowa Board of Regents, one year into her six-year term. She said she underestimated how much time it would take to serve on the board, which governs the state's three public universities.
Her resignation came one day after a Des Moines Register story raised questions about the university's agreement to buy Herman Miller furniture from its local certified dealer, Pigott, last year. A rival company argued that the deal to supply the new $360 million UI Children's Hospital and the entire university with furniture items was potentially illegal and wasteful due to the lack of competition.
Andringa, board chairwoman of the Vermeer Corp. in Pella, has been a Herman Miller director since 1999. Federal filings show she earned $146,000 last year from the Michigan-based company and is a major shareholder, owning about $1.4 million in stock.
Andringa joined the Board of Regents on May 1, 2015, and did not list her director's position with Herman Miller on her conflict of interest disclosure form filed that month. The form asks regents to list director positions and relationships that may represent a conflict "by the letter and spirit" of board policy, which requires regents to promptly disclose actual and perceived conflicts so they can be managed.
On June 30 of last year, a Pigott executive signed a contract extension to exclusively supply the university with chairs, desks and dozens of other Herman Miller products through March 2018 and to help outfit the children's hospital. Days later, on July 6, Andringa amended her conflict of interest form to note her work for Herman Miller, saying that the company "may from time to time have operational staff submit bids to sell office furniture and other goods" to state universities. Two days later, university purchasing director Debby Zumbach signed off on the Pigott extension.
Competitive bids are required by law for contracts worth $25,000 or more. But the university says it didn't have to seek them because Cedar Rapids-based Pigott won a competitive bidding in 2010, and that contract allowed for an extension. University spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said the university was able to negotiate savings due to the additional purchasing volume from hospital projects, and that university policies were followed.
Andringa has served as the chairwoman of the regents' committee that oversees the university hospital. She didn't immediately return a message seeking comment Thursday.
Andringa told Board of Regents staff in June 2015 about her role with Herman Miller and had no involvement in the contract extension, board spokesman Josh Lehman said.
To manage the conflict, Andringa was told that she would not be given access to information regarding potential business opportunities for Herman Miller that isn't available to the public, Lehman said. She was also advised to remove herself from votes involving Herman Miller and to avoid participating in transactions with the universities for Herman Miller, he said.
"We are confident that she avoided any appearance of conflict and that all rules and policies were appropriately followed," said Gov. Terry Branstad spokesman Ben Hammes.
Branstad appointed Andringa to the board. She and her husband, Dale, have donated $92,000 to the governor's campaigns since 2010.
In November, a university press release touted the new furniture agreement as a cost-saving success without naming the vendors involved.
But Jeff Lewis, of rival furniture company Neocase, told The Register that his company had hoped to land the children's hospital work and was blindsided by the lack of competition. He said the contract identifies discounts, not savings, and was surprised that it allowed the vendor to bill design and installation services on an open-ended basis at an hourly rate.
Critics of the regents say the contract and Andringa's resignation raise questions.
"I don't trust them when they say there is no conflict," said UI professor Katherine Tachau. "There's an awful lot of coincidences."