IOWA CITY - Iowa U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin refused to say Thursday whether he played a role in securing donations for his namesake university institute from a South Korean businessman and his Iowa-based company, who are pushing for Harkin's bill to transition to a $1 coin.
Harkin was asked on a conference call whether he was involved in obtaining a total of $500,000 in contributions from Cedar Rapids-based PMX Industries and CEO Jin Roy Ryu to the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State University. Harkin would not answer the question and later declined to say whether he was involved in fundraising for the institute, which is locked in a dispute with the university over agriculture research that is threatening its future.
Harkin is sponsoring a bill that would transition the country away from a paper dollar bill and to a $1 coin, which he says would save taxpayers money and be better for the environment. PMX supplies metal for that coin and others to the U.S. Mint and is part of the Dollar Coin Alliance pushing for the change. Ryu is the CEO of PMX as well as its parent company, Poongsan Corp., based in Seoul.
In this July 22, 2000 file photo, Iowa Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, right, looks over the shoulder of Paul Dunfee, a hot mill operator, while touring PMX Industries in Cedar Rapids. Jin Roy Ryu, a South Korean businessman who runs the metals company that supplies the U.S. Mint, gave $500,000 to a university institute honoring U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, who is pushing for a dollar coin that could generate tens of millions of dollars in new business for the company, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday on the donations, which one prominent ethics watchdog said created an appearance of a conflict of interest. They were uncovered in an open records request that showed the Harkin Institute has raised $3.1 million in pledges and that donors included unions and companies who lobby the Senate.
A PMX spokesman has said it was asked for the donation by then-Iowa State Foundation President Daniel Saftig, who declined to say why he targeted the company in a phone interview earlier this week.
Emails show that Iowa State President Steven Leath had discussed fundraising for the institute with both Harkin and his wife, Ruth Harkin, a member of the university's governing board.
"Tom thinks the fundraising will go well with some leads he has," Leath wrote to Ruth Harkin after meeting with Tom Harkin last summer in Washington.
Harkin's spokeswoman, Kate Cyrul Frischmann, said the email "seems to refer to a shared interest in the success of the Institute, not anything improper." She said neither Harkin had violated Senate ethics rules, which bar lobbyists and lobbying firms from giving money to a charitable fund controlled by a member. The money earmarked for the institute flows through the university's charitable foundation.