Prairie Meadows Director Asks Chairman to Step Aside Temporarily

By Dan Johnson
A Prairie Meadows board member said that chairman Jim Rasmussen should temporarily step down until an investigation is completed regarding his possible involvement in an alleged illegal sports betting operation.

"Mr. Rasmussen needs to relinquish his role as chairman while the investigation is underway," Florence Buhr, a member of the 13-person Racing Association of Central Iowa board that operates Prairie Meadows, told the Des Moines Register.

Rasmussen is on a list of 55 witnesses ordered to tell what they know about an alleged multimillion-dollar illegal gambling ring broken up last week in Norwalk, said Patricia Notch, assistant Warren County attorney.

Notch alleges the gambling ring was operated by Robert Derryberry of Norwalk. Witnesses on the list come from people who either showed up in Derryberry's records as having placed bets or had knowledge of the operation, she said Friday.

"I am surprised by this," Buhr said. "I certainly think this is going to be something everyone is going to be concerned with."

Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission chairman Mike Mahaffey said that the commission will conduct an investigation to see if Rasmussen violated any rules.

Rasmussen, who is also one of the Iowa's leading breeders and horse owners, said he will leave it up to the commission to determine if he needed to step down from the racing association or as a horse owner.

Rasmussen himself has talked of stepping down for the past 1 1/2 years, though on Saturday he had no timetable on how much longer he wanted to serve. He was diagnosed with lung cancer three years ago, a condition which he said is currently stable and has not required chemotherapy treatments for nearly a year. He has been the racing association chairman since 1995.

Asked if he bet with the bookmaker, Rasmussen declined comment. However, he said he had no gambling debts.

Rasmussen said he met with investigators a month ago, and no deals were made regarding his possible testimony.

"Nobody has served me with anything saying that I have to testify," Rasmussen said. "The only reason I know about it is because it's been reported in the media."

Shirley Kleywegt, another racing association member, said she's concerned that if Rasmussen did take a temporary leave, it might look like he had wrong-doing at Prairie Meadows.

"I can see that perception," Kleywegt said. "They're unrelated issues. Prairie Meadows had absolutely nothing to do with this.

"There has to be more information to the board. The board has to meet and talk about it. I don't think we can make an independent decision right now."

Nancy Robertson, a horse owner from Runnels, said she doesn't expect the focus on Rasmussen to damage Iowa horse racing. Prairie Meadows' Thoroughbred season begins Friday.

"Because he shows up on a witness list doesn't mean he's guilty of something," Robertson said. "The fact that his name comes up, means nothing to me. I would hate people to think I'm guilty of crime simply because I'm called at witness.

"Even if he were to have gambled, I don't think that has an impact on the horse racing industry. At this point, we don't know what his involvement is. It's far too early to speculate."

Derryberry, a convicted bookmaker, and nine others were arrested last week. Authorities said their gambling syndicate had operated since at least 1999. The arrests were made after an investigation in which authorities kept Derryberry's Norwalk home under almost constant surveillance for two months, sifted through his garbage, and seized telephone records, financial documents and $500,000. The investigation also relied on two confidential informants.

Derryberry's attorney, F. Montgomery Brown of Des Moines, said his client plans to plead not guilty.