Wednesday, October 26, 2016

State auditor also reviewing Iowa State flights: Regent makes email inquiry about criminal liability

The State Auditor’s Office is conducting its own inquiry into Iowa State University President Steven Leath’s use of university-owned aircraft, including flying one of the planes on trips that included vacations.

The state audit is in addition to a Board of Regents staff review of travel and equipment use at the state’s three public universities and a more thorough audit ordered last week during a regents meeting.

At that meeting, Regents President Bruce Rastetter requested the board’s chief auditor lead a review of every flight by all users of the two-craft ISU Flight Service since Leath arrived at ISU in 2012.

Leath has reimbursed the cost of the flights that involved his personal travel, vowed to not pilot the university craft again and said he supports the detailed audit ordered at the regents’ meeting.

Separately, State Auditor Mary Mosiman this week confirmed for The Gazette that “my office decided to review this situation as soon as we became aware of it.”

She declined to comment on details of her office’s review.

The state auditor, who is elected every four years, cannot prosecute if its investigation finds any criminal wrongdoing, but can make recommendations and forward findings to investigating agencies. Any criminal investigation of the matter would start with the County Attorney’s Office in Story County, where ISU is based.

None of the agencies reached by The Gazette this week said they are involved in any such investigation.

“We have not been contacted to assist with any investigation involving the ISU president,” said one of them, Iowa Department of Public Safety spokesman Alex Murphy said.

On Sept. 23 — the day ISU first disclosed details about Leath’s use of ISU planes and a hard landing he experienced last summer that caused damage — an Iowa Attorney General’s Office staffer began collecting documents on the topic, according to records.

When Board of Regents leadership became aware of the staffer’s interest, the board’s counsel contacted the state office and learned the staff member had initiated a public records request without telling anyone in the office. The Attorney General’s Office then, following the “correct protocol,” referred the information to the Story County Attorney’s Office, according to Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for the office.

“Did they try to quash anything?” Greenwood asked, referring to the Board of Regents office. “The answer is no.”

The Story County Attorney’s Office has not returned calls from The Gazette for comment.

On the same day the Board of Regents met last week, Regent Subhash Sahai emailed Leath and raised a question of criminal wrongdoing.

Citing a section of Iowa Code prohibiting state employees from using or allowing someone else to use state-owned property “for any private purpose or for personal gain to the detriment of the state,” Sahai noted violation is a serious misdemeanor.

Leath, who came to ISU with a pilot’s license in 2012, acknowledged flying the ISU-owned Cirrus SR22 often for work-related business and fundraising. He also has been a frequent passenger of ISU larger plane, a Beechcraft King Air 350. Both planes were bought after he arrived.

Leath has four times reimbursed the university for trips in the Cirrus that involved personal travel, at $125 an hour.

ISU officials have said that rate is based on a “predetermined cost formula developed by ISU Flight Service.”

But Sahai questioned that rate as too low.

“Cost of renting this type of plane is about $275/hour,” he wrote. “Your reimbursement to the university for the use of plane, I believe was less than adequate.”

One of the trips involving Leath’s personal use in summer 2015 ended with Leath making a hard landing in Illinois, costing ISU more than $17,000. Sahai referenced the liability risk.

“I am not a lawyer, but I believe if anybody else other than you were flying in this plane, and not on official business, and God forbid an accident happens, ISU and thus State of Iowa would be held responsible,” wrote Sahai, a doctor.

Gov. Terry Branstad, through his office’s spokesman Ben Hammes, said he thinks the Board of Regents acted appropriately in ordering a comprehensive review of the flights.

“I would note that the Iowa Attorney General and the Story County Attorney have dismissed any notion of a criminal prosecution,” Hammes said in an email.

After news broke of Leath’s plane use and hard landing, the president made a donation to the ISU Foundation covering the expense.

Since Leath made a promise Sept. 26 to not fly the Cirrus again, the plane has been flown only to receive avionics maintenance, according to Megan Landolt, ISU assistant to the president for communications.

“It was flown to Pella on Sept. 30 and was returned to Ames Oct. 18,” she said. “It has not been flown in the week it has been back.”

ISU this week released more details about the King Air — the larger ISU plane that Leath used as a passenger. After the ISU Foundation in 2014 bought that plane with $2.875 million in “discretionary funds,” it paid an additional $595,568 for upgrades, including avionics improvements, inspections, safety enhancements, maintenance, refurbishment and branding.

The upgrades included a “combination moving map and DVD player, audio and video distribution amplifiers, display and base, receiver, and remote” costing nearly $51,000. Upgrades also included a $79,338 high-speed internet system that costs $2,595 a month.

“This adds to the efficiency of university aircraft as it allows passengers to work during travel time,” according to ISU officials.

All of the upgrades were made with ISU Foundation discretionary funds designated for Department of Athletics’ priorities.


Cirrus SR22, N176CF, Iowa State University: