Ethical Questions Pile Up Around Leath with News He Crashed University Plane

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John Pemble/Flickr

Associated Press reporter Ryan Foley landed a big scoop Friday, revealing that in July 2015, Iowa State University President Steven Leath crash-landed a university-owned plane at the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington on his way home from a trip to North Carolina, where he has a home and helps run a Christmas tree farm owned by his family, possibly in violation of ISU policy or even state law.

A certified pilot, Leath was either touching down in Illinois to meet with a “potential donor” or refuel, depending on ISU spokesman John McCarroll’s changing explanations of the crash. Both wings of the Cirrus SR22 single engine plane Leath was flying were damaged in the crash due to pilot error. Afterward, the plane was stored at the airport at an unspecified cost for three to four weeks, and the university shelled out $12,000 to cover its repairs.

ISU kept the incident under wraps for the next 14 months, until the AP began asking questions. On Friday, the university preempted Foley’s report by releasing a long summary of Leath’s use of university aircraft and ISU’s involvement in a partnership with the city and private interests to upgrade the Ames airport.

According to Foley, ISU said Leath had reimbursed the university $4,600 for four times he flew the plane for personal use but didn’t specify whether the July 2015 trip was one of those instances. This was apparently news to Warren Madden, ISU’s recently retired senior vice president for business and finance, who oversaw the university’s flight program and told the AP that Leath would never be allowed to “fly by himself one of our planes because of the insurance and liability issues” before being informed that the president had done just that — possibly in violation of ISU policy, which prohibits travel strictly for personal gains. The policy also bars the removal of university property for personal reasons, something also prohibited by state law.

Throwing an additional wrinkle into the report, Leath was three weeks away from a vote to renew his university contract through 2020 when he crashed the plane but didn’t immediately tell the Iowa Board of Regents about the incident. Regents President Bruce Rastetter was eventually informed at an unspecified later date, Foley reported, and after the AP story broke defended Leath’s use of the plane.

That’s unsurprising, considering that Leath and Rastetter were both recently in the news for a previous controversy in which Leath had reached out to Summit Agricultural Group, a company owned by Rastetter, to help him find land he purchased in possible violation of ISU’s conflict-of-interest policy.

Before that, ISU was facing questions over its hiring of employees, including former GOP lawmakers Kraig Paulsen and Jim Kurtenbach, without advertising the positions or conducting a search process. Leath has dismissed the land deal and no-search hires as non-stories.

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Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.