Report: Rastetter Stores Business Plane at Ames Airport

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Former Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter. Photo: IprImages/Flickr

Dropped in near the end of the AP’s latest report relating to Iowa State University President Steven Leath’s past use of two university-owned airplanes is another detail suggestive of the controversy’s links to Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter, “an agribusinessman and Republican Party powerbroker” who “stores his business plane at the airport.”

The bulk of the article is about Tuesday’s Ames City Council meeting, where a funding agreement with ISU was approved that holds the university responsible for covering the costs — up to $1.3 million over 18 years — of revenue abated, city-issued bonds for improvements to the municipal airport. The $4.4 million project, first proposed by Ames business leaders before Leath arrived at ISU, includes plans to build a new terminal building. A new hangar that’s also a part of the project was completed in July by Ames-based Story Construction (PDF) with the help of $1 million in private funds raised by the Ames Economic Development Commission. A ribbon-cutting ceremony originally scheduled for last week was postponed because of delays associated with the rising estimated cost of the terminal building.

Rastetter, who is Leath’s boss, is a supporter of the airport improvement project, saying it will help economic development efforts in the city. He has also downplayed ethical concerns raised about Leath’s use of university-owned planes, one of which was purchased in 2014 for $2.9 million (PDF) using private funds from the university-affiliated ISU Foundation in a possible effort to skirt a policy stating that purchases of equipment over $1 million required approval from the Board of Regents.

Rastetter is also the CEO of Summit Agriculture Group, whose subsidiary Summit Farms sold land to Leath with Rastetter’s involvement, in possible violation of the board’s and ISU’s conflict-of-interest rules.

Leath has faced scrutiny since the AP broke the news last month that in the summer of 2015 he caused $12,000 in damage to the university’s single-engine Cirrus SR22 while flying home from a trip mixing personal time and business in possible violation of ISU policy and state law. He later donated $15,000 to the ISU Foundation to cover the damage and related costs. Leath was trained to fly the plane by former GOP lawmaker Jim Kurtenbach, but according to Leath stopped taking lessons before Kurtenbach was controversially hired as the university’s chief information officer without a standard search process.

The AP later revealed that pilots took Leath on four trips with celebrity bowhunter John Dudley using the university’s larger plane, which Leath isn’t certified to fly. The plane also took Leath’s relatives to an NCAA basketball tournament game. Dean Hunziker, a prominent real estate agent in Ames, has also flown on it for trips to meet with a developer about student housing ideas, according to the AP.

On Wednesday evening, in response to numerous public records requests including one from the Informer, ISU published a lengthy FAQ “in an effort to be open and efficient” with links to documents about airplane purchase agreements, insurance policies, flight logs (in which Dudley’s name has been redacted), and reimbursement from Leath for flying the plane he eventually damaged.

The Board of Regents announced last week that its chief audit executive, Todd Stewart, would conduct a “compliance review of policies regarding use of equipment and travel at each of the three Regent universities” and give a progress report at the board’s next meeting Oct. 19-20 at the University of Northern Iowa. Also last week, ISU’s Student Government overwhelmingly approved a resolution requesting an independent probe specifically of Leath’s plane use.

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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.