ISU Foundation Donations Paid for Leath, Rastetter Hunting Trip with Governor

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Iowa State University President Steven Leath, far right, pictured during a 2014 Texas hunting trip with Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter, second from left, and Gov. Terry Branstad, second from right. Photo: Iowa's Record Setting Governor: The Terry Branstad Story

Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter, who last week said he was “extremely disappointed” by Iowa State University President Steven Leath’s trips on university airplanes that mixed the courting of potential donors with vacation time and hunting trips, himself went on a hunting trip with Leath and Gov. Terry Branstad in early 2014 that was facilitated by the ISU Foundation, although a university plane was not used.

The Informer asked Leath aide Megan Landolt about the trip, which received a brief mention in journalist Mike Chapman’s “warm and glowing tribute to the nation’s longest serving governor,” Iowa’s Record Setting Governor: The Terry Branstad Story, a biography published last year. As part of a photo spread in the center of the book, a poorly edited caption printed with the image at the top of this post reads:

Hunting was a big part of Governor Branstad’s youth, and he often enjoyed the opportunity to go on hunting trips with friends, such as this 2013 outing in Texas. Joining the governor(second from the right) were Dr. Steven Leuth [sic], President of Iowa State University(far right), Bruce Rastetter, current president of the Board of Regents (second from left)., Michael Gerdin and a local guide.

Landolt said the caption’s date is incorrect — the trip was from Jan. 5-7, 2014, not in 2013. “No university or state resources (including university aircraft) were used for the trip,” she said. “The trip was made possible through gifts in kind to the ISU Foundation,” which is a private nonprofit organization closely affiliated with the university. “The purpose of the trip was donor stewardship.”

According to the book’s index, Leath and Rastetter are not otherwise mentioned. There is only one other reference to hunting, on the page opposite the Texas trip photo, where Branstad is pictured wearing shades and camo overalls as he stands stoically in a fishing boat holding a giant salmon.

The January dates coincide with an Associated Press brief published on the day after the end of the trip that described what Branstad told reporters about the excursion. It was his first time hunting wild hogs, the governor said, but although he took a shot at one he missed. His unnamed group of hunting partners had more luck with wild ducks, killing seven of them. According to a spokesman, the AP added, Branstad took the trip on personal time.

The subject of the “donor stewardship” mentioned by Landolt was likely Michael Gerdin, whose parents Russ and Ann Gerdin were major donors to the ISU Foundation. Their donations allowed the business college to start a doctoral program and, in 2004, helped fund the construction of the Gerdin Business Building on campus. The Gerdins have also donated millions of dollars to other foundations, including the University of Iowa’s. Michael Gerdin is CEO of the North Liberty trucking company Heartland Express, succeeding his father, who retired in September 2011 due to health problems and died the next month.

Many of the trips under scrutiny, which Leath did take on university airplanes, also involved hunting. The AP’s Ryan Foley reported that celebrity bowhunter John Dudley joined Leath on four of them, including an outing to Indiana with Ames realtor Dean Hunziker and NRA board member Pete Brownell, CEO of Grinnell-based gun parts supplier Brownells, during which they shot doves and met with Gov. Mike Pence. Leath also took two trips to Wyoming with Bill Dougherty, the AP reported, a man he described in 2012 as “my best friend, former colleague, hunting buddy, and 25-year sounding board.”

Those flights used the university’s Beechwood King Air 350, which was purchased a month after the Texas hunting trip by the ISU Foundation for $2.875 million and then gifted to the university in an apparent effort to dodge a Board of Regents policy requiring board approval of university equipment purchases of over $1 million. Before the purchase, ISU had an older model King Air. Months later, the university itself purchased the smaller Cirrus SR22 — the plane Leath damaged the following summer — but with $470,000 in foundation funds.

Last week, the Board of Regents said they had no problem with how the new King Air was purchased but decided to launch an audit of all flights Leath has taken on university-owned aircraft since his arrival at ISU in January 2012. Rastetter, who stores a company plane flown by part-time ISU pilot Adam Haggard at the Ames airport where the university’s planes are also housed, told Leath: “We at the Board of Regents take the use of university resources very seriously. In more than just a few instances, the decision to use the plane appears to be questionable — at best.”

Spokespeople for the Board of Regents and Branstad did not respond to requests for comment.

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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.