Higher education

New audit details Iowa State University flight findings

Regents ordered the review after questions arose over ISU's Leath use of a state plane

A Cirrus SR22 owned by Iowa State University and piloted by ISU President Steven Leath sustained wing damage, above, during a hard landing in 2015 at the Central Illinois Regioanal Airport in Bloomington, Ill. (Photo from Central Illinois Regioanl Airport)
A Cirrus SR22 owned by Iowa State University and piloted by ISU President Steven Leath sustained wing damage, above, during a hard landing in 2015 at the Central Illinois Regioanal Airport in Bloomington, Ill. (Photo from Central Illinois Regioanl Airport)

ANKENY — Under fire for taking a university aircraft on trips that sometimes mixed official and personal businesses — and causing about $14,000 in damage during one — Iowa State University President Steven Leath announced Monday the school is putting that single-engine Cirrus SR22 up for sale.

He also said that he has paid another $19,113 to the ISU Foundation for his use of both the Cirrus and an ISU-owned Beechcraft King Air 350, and that the university is reviewing if it should eliminate its Flight Services department.

Leath has been certified to fly single-engine planes for nearly a decade. That meant he could pilot the university’s Cirrus, but not its twin-engine Beechcraft.

Since he was hired there in 2012, ISU Flight Services expenses more than doubled, jumping from $393,783 in the 2012 budget year to $880,584 in 2016. Fuel costs climbed from $86,537 to $148,949, according to auditors.

After news reports raised questions about Leath’s plane use, the Iowa Board of Regents in October ordered an audit. Monday, in a board meeting in Ankeny where results of that audit were disclosed, Regents President Bruce Rastetter said the campuses need to have stronger and clearer policies about plane use.

Rastetter said the board agrees ISU should sell the Cirrus and look into whether to keep Flight Services. But, he said, Leath didn’t violate board or ISU policy or break any laws, according to audit findings.

“Clearly, President Leath’s acknowledgment that he takes full responsibility for the issues identified in the audit and that he should have been more transparent about the use of the planes reassures this board, and I hope all Iowans, that the president deserves our continued trust and support,” Rastetter said. “Furthermore, the board believes the audit has put to rest any concerns about President Leath’s use of the aircraft.”


The state auditor also has said she is looking into ISU Flight Services, but Leath and Rastetter said Monday she was awaiting results from the board’s report and hasn’t been in touch with Leath about a second audit.

Monday’s report shows Leath was involved in almost all — 95 percent — of the Cirrus’ 76 trips since its purchase in 2014.

Of those trips, the “business purpose” of 52 of them was his “proficiency/training or certification in the Cirrus.”

Of 302 trips involving the larger King Air since its purchase in 2014, nearly as many were billed to the president’s office as to ISU’s Department of Athletics — 79 to 84, respectively.

Addressing the board after hearing the full audit report, Leath said the findings confirm he didn’t break any laws or violate any policies.

“But I realize that that’s not enough,” he said. “I want to conduct myself in a way that’s beyond reproach, and I’m sorry that I did not use better judgment in this process.”

The university did not publicly disclose — or report to its insurance company — that Leath experienced a hard landing at an Illinois airport in July 2015, causing about $14,000 in damage. When details of his trips became known, Leath promised to use better judgment about when to fly on the King Air.

“I think it’s become pretty clear that while I try to use my best judgment … there are things I should have done differently, and I am terribly sorry for that,” he said.


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Because he’s no longer flying the Cirrus, and because an ISU Flight Service pilot is retiring, Leath told the board it no longer makes sense to keep the Cirrus.

“We plan to sell the Cirrus with board concurrence this week,” he said, noting he expects to make money on the sale.

ISU officials repeatedly have said they didn’t buy the Cirrus just for Leath. They said the school needed to replace its 1978 four-seated Piper PA with something safer, faster and more efficient.

The university spent $470,000 of ISU Foundation dollars on the Cirrus — money that came from private sources “for the institutional head to commit at his/her discretion,” ISU has stated.

The school in 2014 also bought the Beechcraft King Air 350 for $2.875 million using ISU Foundation dollars designated for the Department of Athletics. That plane replaced a King Air 200 that needed upgrades, officials have said.

After Leath’s hard landing in Illinois last summer was disclosed in September, he has made $17,500 in donations to the ISU Foundation to cover the cost of damage, storage and sending another plan to get him.

He also has reimbursed the university for three other trips he said involved both personal and university business.

According to the audit, Leath reimbursed the university for those flights at a rate of $125 per flight hour — totaling $4,637. That rate was calculated by ISU Flight Service “based on the variable cost of operating the Cirrus,” although that coast is actually $265 an hour, the audit found.


Leath said he wrote the check for another $19,113 based on additional trips in question and for tho times he used the Cirrus for certification and training.

Among other findings, the audit reported ISU Flight Services doesn’t maintain a comprehensive log of all flights on the Cirrus, and a log for the King Air lacks “necessary details, such as business purpose.”

ISU flights since 2012

A breakdown of ISU Flight Services trips since Leath’s hire in 2012 are as follows:

Leath was the only passenger on 12 of 44 trips on the old King Air 200;

Another six of those trips listed only Leath, his wife, or other family members on the plane;

Leath is listed as the only passenger on nine of 65 trips on the King Air 350, and another 17 trips listed only Leath and his wife;

For 62 flights that noted the business purpose as “donor relations/outreach,” auditors were able to confirm records and details of the visit for 38;

For 17 of those 62 flights, foundation records only provided evidence the foundation was aware of the trip but no details of the trip in question.

For seven trips, the foundation had no records;

Blurring personal with professional

Auditors dug into four trips Leath took to North Carolina, where he has a property, that he admitted blended personal and university business:

From March 25 to 29 last year, Leath met with a person facilitating Iowa State’s involvement in the Boone and Crockett Club University Program, which provides “science-based knowledge” from wildlife professionals and educators to college graduates;


From May 12 to 17 last year, Leath had “multiple contacts with strategic institutional leaders, specifically, University of North Carolina MBA faculty;”

From July 3 to 14 last year, Leath met with a person who’s been helping develop and expand the ISU Research Park;

And from Aug. 26 to Aug. 30 of this year, Leath was scheduled to meet with that same person — but the donor canceled the meeting.

Auditors determined a King Air stop in March 2014 in Elmira, New York — en route to the NCAA basketball tournament, during which Leath’s brother and sister-in-law boarded — was a planned refueling stop.

“A return stop in Elmira would not have been necessary other than to drop off passengers,” according to the audit.

Auditors also determined ISU-owned aircraft or other resources were used seven times between May 2013 and August 2016 to transport Leath to Rochester, Minn. Three of those trips were solely for medical treatment — although Leath said flying was necessary to get him back to campus for university obligations, according to the audit.

Such use of university resources is not covered by Leath’s contract, and auditors suggested adding a clause if it should be.

Auditors also criticized Leath’s failure to report his hard landing to the ISU Office of Risk Management — something he said he didn’t do because of the impact that would have had on rates.


“If the Office of Risk Management had been informed, the insurance carrier would have been notified immediately to record the date of the event, regardless of whether an insurance claim was to be filed,” according to the audit. “The Office of Risk Management was also not consulted or involved in the decision to not file an insurance claim.”

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