CORALVILLE, Iowa (AP) — In 2016, Iowa State University accused an employee of fraud and theft in a dispute over the unusual but lucrative campus assets she managed: popular outdoor sculptures made of thousands of Lego bricks.
Three years later, the school has withdrawn its allegations against Teresa McLaughlin under a settlement reached last month. The university paid McLaughlin $225,000 in wages and attorneys’ fees, will offer her health insurance until 2022 and has given her a glowing letter of recommendation from its president calling her an honest employee who made major contributions over 17 years. Iowa State will also dedicate a bench for McLaughlin in Reiman Gardens, the campus landmark that she spent much of her career building as its director.
Those steps end a dispute that derailed the Lego art program conceived by McLaughlin, called Nature Connects. The traveling exhibits featured sculptures of plants and animals, were displayed at zoos and gardens nationwide and brought in revenue for Iowa State.
McLaughlin said she wants to restore her reputation, which she believes was unfairly sullied by her alma mater. She said the university made claims of wrongdoing against her without evidence and while in possession of records that exonerated her.
She said the dispute hurt her finances and “took a great toll on me and my family.”
“I did not think Iowa State would do this to me,” she said in an interview in Coralville, where she lives. She called the experience “confusing, unfair and unfortunate.”
The university does not admit wrongdoing in the settlement, which avoided a June trial.
McLaughlin envisioned the sculptures as a way to draw visitors to Reiman Gardens, a 17-acre (7-hectare) space on the Ames campus. McLaughlin began working there in 1999 and built one of the “finest and most unique public gardens in the country,” according to university President Wendy Wintersteen’s recommendation letter.
Iowa State hired…