IOWA CITY, Iowa — The board that governs Iowa’s public universities will review whether employees have adhered to policies barring the use of state equipment and travel for private gain, amid growing questions about the use of Iowa State University’s planes by its president.
The Iowa Board of Regents announced Wednesday that its chief internal auditor will review whether Iowa State University President Steven Leath and other employees followed those rules. The “compliance review” will also ensure policies at Iowa State, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa are clear and consistent and have been followed, the board’s executive director Bob Donley said in a statement.
The announcement came as questions swirled around Leath’s frequent use of two university airplanes, following an investigation by The Associated Press. The nine regents had faced calls from some student leaders and lawmakers in recent days to exercise oversight of Leath, who has led Iowa State since 2012.
Iowa State is unique among the three universities in that it has its own airplanes, which have received a major upgrade and increased usage under Leath, a pilot and flight buff.
Leath has acknowledged that he flew one of the planes himself on four trips that have mixed personal and official business, and he later reimbursed the school at a rate of $125 per flight hour. While returning home from one vacation in North Carolina last year, he suffered a hard landing in Illinois that damaged both wings and cost $12,500 to repair.
The school used private donations to purchase that single-engine plane for $498,000 in 2014, and Leath obtained certification allowing him to fly it by himself months later, after receiving additional training. When he got into the accident, Leath told the Federal Aviation Administration that he had flown that type of plane 153 hours in the prior year, according to documents released to AP on Wednesday under the Freedom of Information Act.
The AP reported Tuesday that university pilots have flown Leath and his wife on the school’s larger King Air plane on several occasions to and from the North Carolina town where his family owns a mountain home and Christmas tree farm business.
In addition, a school plane was used to pick up and drop off Leath’s brother and sister-in-law on the way to and from an NCAA tournament basketball game in New York in 2014. Leath has also traveled on the plane with celebrity bowhunter John Dudley in trips that have mixed university fundraising with hunting, another of Leath’s hobbies. Donations to the university foundation pick up the costs of those flights.
State law says that any public official who uses state-owned property for “any private purpose or for personal gain to the detriment of the state” has committed a serious misdemeanor. Noting that prohibition, ISU policy says employees cannot remove any kind of university property “for personal use from the buildings or grounds.” In addition, university policy requires employees to schedule their travel “in a manner that excludes consideration of personal gain.”
Leath hasn’t responded to AP interview requests, but he told the Iowa State Daily student newspaper Wednesday that he regretted mixing personal and business plane usage, saying it had brought a “negative image to the university.” He said he wished his relatives had not been allowed to ride to and from the Sweet 16 game.
At the same time, he said that all of his trips had a business component to them and that his accident “wasn’t a huge deal.” He has written a check for $15,000 to cover repair and storage costs and vowed to stop piloting university planes.
“This could make me give up flying, which I think is sad,” Leath told the newspaper.