Documents: The Unredacted Iowa State #Planegate Flight Logs

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Central Illinois Regional Airport at Bloomington-Normal

Next Monday will be President Steven Leath’s last day at Iowa State University, concluding a five-year tenure marked by record student enrollment levels, considerable ISU Research Park growth, and fundraising successes, but also by scandal. The most visible has been the still-simmering #Planegate affair, uncovered by the Associated Press last September when it revealed Leath had crash-landed a university plane at an Illinois airport in the summer of 2015.

ISU’s flight program faced further scrutiny from the AP’s Ryan Foley when he began reporting on other flights taken on university planes with big-name figures, including several with celebrity bowhunter John Dudley and influential Ames realtor Dean Hunziker, and another with NRA board member Pete Brownell to visit Mike Pence in Indiana when he was still governor. Foley got the information from ISU’s own website, yet, venting to the Iowa State Daily, Leath decried the AP’s reporting on possible university donors as “totally inappropriate.”

Although Leath largely dodged responsibility for his apparent misuse of university planes for personal gain, the sustained attention #Planegate received resulted in a PR fiasco for ISU. Leath brought in his own press aide who attempted to control the flow of public record releases. The university removed the flight logs from its website, claiming they had been posted in error and were exempt from public disclosure under a state transparency law involving donor privacy, then released a redacted version concealing the names. ISU officials changed their stories about various details — some of them defying common sense or contradicting reported facts — repeatedly throughout the process. (Last week, Leath again complained to the Daily about the #Planegate coverage, saying, “I don’t think it was ever fully or fairly portrayed in the media, which is disappointing” — this, despite his clear disdain for the reporters who dared to investigate his ethical missteps and his university’s many efforts to stonewall them.)

After the flight logs, which list dozens of trips on ISU planes from April 2014 through August 2016, were redacted, the Des Moines Register filed a complaint demanding the original documents be made public again. In March, the newspaper succeeded in obtaining the records, publishing a story along with a partial database of traveler information. Among the new information revealed in the report was that other prominent members of the Ames business community also took flights on university aircraft, including Dan Culhane, president and CEO of the local Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Commission — at times to locations on dates coinciding with Cyclones sporting events.

When the Register report was published, the Informer requested copies of the same 670, unredacted pages of flight logs the paper was given. A few weeks later, we received a FedEx package with the printed documents (and an invoice for $180.14). In the interest of transparency, and for posterity, here they are in digital form:

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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.