Higher education

Iowa State President Leath ups donation amid plane controversy

New information includes flight logs, purchase agreements, receipts

Iowa State University President Steven Leath stands for a portrait at The Gazette and KCRG building in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, March 04, 2015. (Michael Noble Jr./The Gazette)
Iowa State University President Steven Leath stands for a portrait at The Gazette and KCRG building in Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, March 04, 2015. (Michael Noble Jr./The Gazette)

Costs associated with a hard landing Iowa State University President Steven Leath made while flying an ISU-owned plane last year — prompting criticism and investigation of his use of the aircraft — are higher than first reported, prompting Leath to up a donation he made to cover the expense.

The original estimate for repairs to a Cirrus SR22 that Leath was flying in July 2015 when he encountered a “microburst” and landed hard in Bloomington, Illinois, was $12,591.70. The university used “non-general fund resources” to cover those costs, but Leath — after news broke of the incident last month — made a $15,000 donation to the ISU Foundation.

In a purge of information from Iowa State this week — including flight logs, plane purchase agreements, insurance policies, receipts and pilot information — ISU officials announced the cost to repair the plane was actually $14,050.26.

To cover the damage expenses — along with the cost to store the aircraft and send another plane to pick up Leath from Bloomington, which brought the total to $17,373.70 — Leath has donated an additional $2,500, ISU officials said this week.

Leath also had previously reimbursed the university $1,100 for his use of the Cirrus on that trip because it combined personal and professional business.

Newly-released flight logs of both the Cirrus, which Leath is certified and insured to fly, and ISU’s Beechcraft King Air 350, which he can’t fly but can use as a passenger, show numerous trips to North Carolina, where Leath owns property. But ISU officials this week restated Leath only used the Cirrus for trips that involved personal business on four occasions.

“Leath never used university aircraft for purely personal trips,” according to Iowa State officials. “Every time President Leath used university flight service for transportation, there was a business purpose for the transportation.”


Employees, per ISU policy, are allowed to extend business trips for personal time, and they don’t have to reimburse for the travel — even though Iowa State officials said Leath did on four occasions — totaling $4,637.50.

Leath has been fully certified to fly single-engine aircraft for nearly 10 years — long before he arrived at Iowa State in January 2012. At that time, the university owned a 1977 Beechcraft King Air and a 1978 Piper PA 28-161, both of which “were in desperate need of efficiency and safety upgrades,” according to information released this week.

Iowa State’s athletics department was the primary user of the King Air and prioritized its upgrade, officials said. Thus the “discretionary funds” used to buy a replacement “were designated for Department of Athletics’ priorities.”

According to the information released this week, the ISU Foundation in February 2014 bought a new King Air plane for $2.875 million. Officials previously told The Gazette that plane cost $2.4 million. The university sold its old King Air for about $800,000 in June 2014.

In July 2014, Iowa State bought the Cirrus for $470,000 — a total that includes the $28,000 trade-in value of its older, smaller plane.

In new information provided this week, Iowa State officials call the purchase of the Cirrus a “unique opportunity.”

“President Leath was told the previous owners — a husband and wife — were big Iowa State fans,” according to ISU. “The husband passed away shortly after they bought the plane, and the wife thought it would be nice to sell it to someone with Iowa State ties. The university received a call about this unique opportunity and was offered the plane at an exceptional price.”

The university covered the cost using funds from “private discretionary sources for the institutional head to commit at his/her discretion,” according to new Iowa State information.


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“Donors who contribute to these funds do so with the intent that the president will have flexibility and discretion on how best to use the resources to benefit the university,” according to Iowa State. “These are donations made specifically for the president’s discretionary use.”

Iowa State officials did not immediately respond to The Gazette’s questions about how much money is in the presidential discretionary fund and what other purchases have been made with those dollars.

Leath has said he worked with ISU Flight Service and the Offices of University Counsel and University Risk Management in October 2014 to explore his use of the Cirrus.

In information made public this week, Iowa State officials said “to enhance his skills in the Cirrus aircraft and obtain his instrument flight rating,” Leath took lessons from Classic Aviation in Pella from October 2012 to October 2014.

The university has not paid for any of Leath’s flight instruction, which was primarily provided by an instructor named Kendall Arkema — although the university has confirmed Jim Kurtenbach, who now serves as ISU chief information officer, offered to give him lessons in late 2014.

Leath took lessons from Kurtenbach from Oct. 18, 2014, to Jan. 12, 2015. Before that first lesson, according to Iowa State, Provost Jonathan Wickert reached out to Kurtenbach — a tenured ISU associate professor — about serving on an interim basis “to help fill important administrative needs.”

“Provost Wickert consulted with President Leath about Kurtenbach,” according to Iowa State. “But it was Provost Wickert’s decision to offer Kurtenbach the position as interim CIO.”

Kurtenbach began his tenure as interim CIO on Jan. 4, 2015, and became permanent CIO July 1, 2016 — after Leath approved hiring him without using a traditional search for the position.


“The fact that President Leath took some flight lessons from Kurtenbach had absolutely nothing to do with his university employment,” according to the ISU information released this week. “To suggest otherwise ignores Kurtenbach’s stellar qualifications.”

Since news broke of Leath’s use of the planes, the Board of Regents has launched a review of all its institutions’ travel policies, ISU student leaders have demanded an investigation of Leath’s use of both planes and Leath has vowed not to fly an ISU plane again — saying this could hurt his ability to fundraise and be efficient with his time.

Gov. Terry Branstad on Monday told reporters he’s backing all three public university heads and insisted Leath is “not getting a pass” in the plane controversy. He called the regents’ travel policy review “appropriate” and supported Leath’s decision to reimburse Iowa State for damage to the Cirrus.

The governor noted Leath has been traveling extensively in support of a $1.1 billion fundraising drive underway at the Ames campus, but added “that doesn’t excuse the mistake he made” using a university-owned plane for personal travel.


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