Iowa State University President Steven Leath still doesn’t get it.
In July, The Des Moines Register reported that Leath had purchased 145 acres of property from a company controlled by one of his bosses, Iowa Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter. When questions arose as to whether the 2015 land deal compromised their professional relationship, Leath initially refused to answer the Register’s questions.
“My personal life, and my wife’s personal life, are nobody else’s business,” he said. “I do not understand what makes this anything more than a private decision by my wife and me to purchase land for private use by our family.” The Board of Regents dutifully followed suit, calling the land deal a “private” matter.
Both conveniently ignored the fact that it was Leath and Rastetter who crossed the line that separates the professional from the personal when they entered into the million-dollar land deal.
Now the Associated Press has reported that Leath, a certified pilot, has used a university-owned airplane for trips that are largely personal in nature, and that Leath failed to reimburse the school for damage caused to the plane last summer.
It also appears that two years ago, the Iowa State University Foundation purchased a different aircraft that it immediately gave to the school for its use. Whether by design or mere happenstance, this arrangement resulted in ISU acquiring a $2.4 million plane without going through the usual public-bidding, public-notice and board-approval requirements normally associated with big-ticket purchases.
So far, the university’s explanations have been utterly lacking, and Leath’s comments again demonstrate a striking lack of awareness as to the propriety of his own actions.
It was in July of last year that Leath, a certified pilot, hopped aboard the university's Cirrus SR22 and flew himself and his wife to Ashe County, N.C., where he owns a home. Leath says he met with a “potential donor" for about four hours during his 11-day trip.
As reported by the AP’s Ryan Foley, Leath stopped in Illinois to refuel the plane on his way back from North Carolina. During a "hard landing," he caused a significant amount of damage to the plane. University officials say that four months later Leath paid for expenses associated with the flight, but the school's foundation picked up the tab for $12,000 in aircraft repairs. No claim was made to the university's insurance company. (The foundation also paid $2,200 to send another aircraft to Illinois to pick up the Leaths and ferry them back to Iowa.)
Sometime last fall, Leath told Rastetter about the damage to the plane, but it appears Rastetter never passed that information on to his fellow regents. State records indicate Leath has reimbursed the university for other trips to North Carolina, paying a rate of $125 per hour, which is about half of what some private companies bill.
All of this came to light just nine days ago. Leath has since announced that he will be donating $16,000 to the ISU Foundation to cover the costs associated with repairs and storage for the Cirrus.
Here’s where it gets surreal: At roughly the same time these disclosures forced Leath to start writing five-figure checks to the ISU Foundation, the university president looked up from his checkbook and expressed great indignation at the "inaccurate allegations that suggest I may have violated university policy and/or state law."
Now the school's former senior vice president, Warren Madden, who had previously told the AP that ISU would never let Leath fly himself in “one of our planes because of the insurance and liability issues,” says he either misspoke or the reporter misunderstood him.
But regardless of what Madden said, there are undeniable liability issues related to the school’s president piloting a university-owned aircraft for trips that are primarily personal in nature. There's also the question of why the university pays for such flights with the foundation’s Greater University Fund — a discretionary account controlled by Leath to be used to meet the school's "most critical needs, such as student scholarships, faculty needs and program support."
Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely that the Board of Regents will do anything about any of this. That’s no surprise, as it’s a board in name only, with Rastetter — Leath’s confidant and defacto real estate agent — calling the shots.
Leath says he wants to put the matter to rest with his payment to the foundation, and he promises that he will never again fly any “state-owned aircraft.”
What’s telling is that he still doesn’t acknowledge any sort of wrongdoing. What’s more, he characterizes his reimbursement for flight-related expenses as a “donation” to the nonprofit foundation, as if it’s a magnanimous act of charity.
His words and actions, combined with the 2015 land purchase, suggest that Leath still doesn’t grasp the most basic tenets of public accountability.
The regents may not expect that of a university president, but the people of Iowa certainly do.