Education

Former ISU President Steven Leath has sold land that drew questions

Deal involving one of his bosses was seen as way of keeping Leath in Iowa

Bruce Rastetter (from left), host of the 2015 Iowa Ag Summit and then president of the state Board of Regents, talks March 7, 2015, with then-Iowa State University President Steven Leath before summit on the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. (The Gazette)
Bruce Rastetter (from left), host of the 2015 Iowa Ag Summit and then president of the state Board of Regents, talks March 7, 2015, with then-Iowa State University President Steven Leath before summit on the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines. (The Gazette)

Former Iowa State University President Steven Leath has sold 145 acres of Central Iowa timber and farmland he had purchased with the help of then-Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter, a transaction that at the time raised questions about a conflict of interest.

Records show that about six months after Leath left the Ames campus in May 2017 to become president of Auburn University in Alabama, he sold the parcels. Last month, Leath resigned abruptly from Auburn just two years into a five-year contract.

According to the Hardin County Assessor’s Office, Leath sold 65.87 acres of the Central Iowa land in November 2017 to Bradley Roling for $222,843. He sold another 79.36 acres to Jerry Roling for $460,157 — totaling 145.23 acres at $683,000 for both transactions combined.

That’s above the $623,000 he paid for the land in January 2016, with the help of Rastetter’s Alden-based Summit Agricultural Group. Summit President Eric Peterson helped facilitate the sale after Leath expressed interest in buying land for recreation.

Having identified parcels in Hardin County fitting Leath’s interests, Summit first bought a 200-plus plot for $1.14 million and then sold 89 acres of timber and 56 acres of farmland to SLS Holdings, a corporation Leath created earlier.

At the time Leath sold his land to the Rolings in 2017, Summit Agriculture also sold nearly 60 acres of its adjacent land to Jerry Roling for $517,000, records show.

Rastetter, reached by phone Wednesday, said the Rolings bought the entire chunk presumably for use as hunting and farming ground. Although he hasn’t spoken to Leath, Rastetter said, he assumes the former ISU president wanted to sell because he’s no longer living in Iowa.

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“He was president of Iowa State and wanted a weekend place to hunt,” Rastetter said. “But when you don’t live in the area, it’s difficult to use the property for those purposes.”

The 2016 collaboration between Rastetter’s company and Leath sparked criticism among some lawmakers and members of the public who saw the deal as indicative of a “cozy” relationship and as a conflict of interest between a public university president and the head of the board that hired and evaluated him.

But Leath defended the deal at the time, arguing it was a personal matter and not improper.

Rastetter and fellow Regent Larry McKibben also defended the sale, with McKibben during a regents meeting thanking Rastetter for helping Leath find property that would encourage him to stay in Iowa.

“I am really pleased that up the road about 35 miles from my house he’s going to be in Hardin County and stay for a good long time after he’s led this agricultural university to great things,” McKibben said.

Rastetter, at the time, also said he was glad Leath and his wife wanted to remain in Iowa.

“This is a good thing that our people at Summit did and Steve and Janet have deeper roots in Iowa, and it’s a positive,” he said.

Just a few months after news broke of the land deal, Leath became embroiled in a separate controversy over his misuse of an ISU-owned airplane. Although the regents stood by Leath, they reprimanded him publicly for questionable trips he took with the state plane and damage he caused during a landing to the Cirrus SR-22.

Auditors reported Leath might have violated board policy, and he ended up repaying the school more than $36,000. The controversy reshaped ISU’s Flight Services and prompted the sale of its Cirrus.

Just as that controversy was beginning to subside, Leath announced he was leaving Ames for Auburn. His unexpected departure last month from that job came after he and an Auburn presidential assessment working group “mutually decided to part ways after extensive discussions about the university’s leadership.”

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In doing so, Leath likely leaves on the table a $1.25 million deferred compensation package that would have paid out in 2022 — a deal that was supposed to make him whole for money he forfeited by leaving ISU before his contract ended.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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