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Education

ISU shifts plane and pilots to athletics

Flights scrutinized after former president's misuse

Then-Iowa State University President Steven Leath gives his last condition of the university report during an April 20, 2017, Board of Regents meeting in Council Bluffs. Leath, who repaid ISU more than $36,000 for questionable trips he took with and damage he caused to its Cirrus SR-22 plane, left to become president of Auburn University. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Then-Iowa State University President Steven Leath gives his last condition of the university report during an April 20, 2017, Board of Regents meeting in Council Bluffs. Leath, who repaid ISU more than $36,000 for questionable trips he took with and damage he caused to its Cirrus SR-22 plane, left to become president of Auburn University. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Iowa State University has never completed a final report on its Flight Service Department after the operation stumbled into the spotlight in 2016 following misuse and questionable practices at the hands of former ISU President Steven Leath.

Before Leath — a pilot who finalized his training and licensing while at ISU — left the university in May 2017, he repaid the school more than $36,000 for questionable trips he took with and damage he caused to its Cirrus SR-22.

News reports in September 2016 about Leath’s previously unknown hard landing with the Cirrus — and its related costs — ticked off a broader investigation of his flying habits.

That snowballed into revelations of his personal use of the school-funded aircraft, and a reprimand from the Board of Regents.

Auditors found Leath might have violated board policy. He vowed to sell the Cirrus, which ISU bought for $470,000 in 2014, two years after Leath arrived on campus. The plane was sold in 2017 to a Cedar Rapids company for $450,000 — less than what ISU initially hoped.

Leath also went further. He said the university would consider eliminating its Flight Service Department and staff, which would be operating only one other plane — a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air 350, purchased for $2.9 million in 2014.

Before departing campus, former ISU Chief of Staff Miles Lackey — who Leath took with him to Auburn University when he assumed the presidency there — produced a draft analysis weighing the pros and cons of dissolving ISU Flight Service.

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That February 2017 report suggested that keeping the King Air and its support services made the most financial and operational sense — if ISU used it according to the expectations of 208 flight hours, or about 55,120 nautical miles, envisioned in the 2018 budget year.

Several months after ISU released that draft, the regents granted the university more time to finish it — citing the need for more information from a new Ames airport operator to complete the cost analysis.

Months later in November 2017, ISU and board officials said the report still needed time.

“The analysis is being finalized and will be available in early December,” ISU spokesman John McCarroll told The Gazette at the time. “We will let you know when it’s done.”

After repeated questions from The Gazette about the fate of the state plane and the staff that supports it, McCarroll in November said: “There is no final report on Flight Service.”

“Today, Iowa State and the Board of Regents Office are focused on addressing critical priorities,” McCarroll said.

In June 2018, according to McCarroll, ISU took the draft report’s preliminary advice and transferred the Flight Service operation from its Facilities, Planning and Management Division to its Athletics Department.

In its new iteration, the service includes just the King Air plane and two pilots: Joe Crandall, who directs ISU Flight Service and earns a $125,000 salary; and Kevin Springer, who earns a $100,000 salary.

Both now report to Chris Jorgensen, senior associate athletics director for operations. As before, the King Air is available to all ISU units — although athletics is the primary user, according to McCarroll and flight records.

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“As with any building or any other piece of equipment, the primary user is typically the one that is responsible for it,” Jorgensen said.

More than 70 percent of the King Air’s use continues to be athletics-related, McCarroll said, though ISU has separate charter air contracts to transport its teams.

Even though the university considered selling the King Air and eliminating Flight Service, McCarroll called the aircraft — which can seat eight or nine — a “critical university tool that allows Department of Athletics coaches, (ISU) Foundation staff, and university faculty and administration to conduct official university business in a cost effective and efficient manner.”

The University of Iowa athletics department and administration, in contrast, does not have a state-owned plane.

ISU last week provided flight records The Gazette had requested back in November. The records, for flights since Jan. 1 2017, show ISU Athletic Director Jamie Pollard, Head Football Coach Matt Campbell, Wrestling Coach Kevin Dresser and Men’s Basketball Coach Steve Prohm most frequently use the King Air in 2018.

ISU Volleyball Coach Jenna Malcom also used the plane once in August 2017 for a 147-mile recruiting trip to and from Dubuque. Women’s Basketball Coach Bill Fennelly used it in December 2017 for a recruiting trip to Bismarck, N.D., and in September 2018 for a recruiting trip to Kansas.

But the women’s teams don’t use the aircraft as much.

Although most of the athletics-related trips come with a “recruiting” label, some are identified as “donor relations” or “training.”

“Use of the university airplane is critically essential to Coach Campbell and his football staff for recruiting purposes,” McCarroll said.

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The preliminary Flight Service assessment from February 2017 projected athletics would use the King Air for at least 62 flight hours before the end of the budget year June 30. It projected use for the 2018 budget year, which ended June 30, 2018, to reach 208 flight hours, or about 55,120 nautical miles.

Records show the university tapped the King Air for 90 flight hours between February and June 30, 2017. The plane flew more than 290 hours in the 2018 budget year, or about 76,726 miles — topping projections.

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

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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