By Jeff Charis-Carlson
Iowa City Press-Citizen
Dec. 13, 2016
The Iowa Board of Regents’ chief auditor announced Monday that some uses of aircraft by the president of Iowa State University “enter shades of gray” as to whether they violate regent and university policy.
The board president, however, said that ISU President Steve Leath has admitted that mistakes were made, has reimbursed the university for any questionable flights and deserves the board’s continued backing.
“President Leath’s acknowledgment that he takes full responsibility for the issues identified in the audit and that he should have been more transparent about the use of the plane reassures this board — and I hope all Iowans — that the president deserves our continued trust and support,” Bruce Rastetter, president of the board, said Monday during a meeting in Ankeny.
The regents met Monday to discuss their internal auditors’ examination of four years’ worth of flights taken by Leath and other ISU administrators. The board also met in closed session to evaluate Leath.
“As you are all aware, we do report whenever we determine whether there is a clear violation of university or board policy,” Todd Stewart, chief audit executive, told the board Monday. “Many times these are clear-cut, black-and-white determinations. In still other cases, they enter shades of gray. President Leath’s use of university aircraft in at least a few instances falls within this category, while most were entirely business related.”
The regents voted unanimously in October to direct the board’s internal auditors to expand their earlier review of travel and equipment policies into a broader independent audit.
Stewart said the report presented Monday did not include any assessment of whether the flights in question violated state law, but the auditors did include several policy recommendations for the board to consider moving forward.
Officials with the Office of the State Auditor are waiting on the results of the regents’ internal audit before deciding whether to move forward with any additional audit of their own, Stewart said.
In open session, the regents offered nothing but praise for Leath’s public admission of having made mistakes and his willingness to learn from them.
“If we can make something that we regret and you regret be a better thing for the university in the future — glory hallelujah! Because I’ll be right there supporting it,” said Regent Larry McKibben. “And the fact that you have said what you said today really impresses me. That you are that kind of a leader that will acknowledge (what) all of us ought to do when we have these kinds of circumstances arise.”
Regent Subash Sahai, who has been publicly critical of Leath in the past, was absent from Monday’s meeting due to illness.
Future of ISU Flight Service
Although the regents offered Leath their continued support Monday, the future for ISU Flight Service is uncertain. The board has called for a comprehensive evaluation of whether the service continues to offer the best use of state-owned resources.
“There’s no doubt that Flight Services has benefited the university in the past,” Leath told reporters after the meeting. “The question actually is: Is there an alternative delivery service that makes sense at this time? … There is no doubt that in the world we live in — especially in athletics, who are the primary users for recruiting and other things — private aircraft play a hugely important role in large universities.”
Regent auditors described Flight Service as a fee-for-service unit that does not depend on external funding to operate. The budget for the service has more than doubled during Leath’s time at the university — from $394,000 in fiscal year 2012 to $880,000 in fiscal year 2016.
Leath, who has a pilot’s license, said in September that he no longer will fly any state-owned craft. He added Monday that, without regular time in a cockpit as part of his job, he probably will not have enough time in the air to keep his skill level adequate and his certification valid.
With only two pilots left certified to fly the Cirrus, Leath said the university will be looking to sell the aircraft. The plane, which had a price tag of nearly $500,000, was paid for by funds that ISU Foundation officials have said were under the university president’s discretion.
Leath has said previously that he does not intend to claim a deduction on his taxes for these reimbursements.
Leath’s office and the Greater University Fund accounted for 28 percent of the miles flown by ISU Flight Service from January 2012 to October 2016, according to the report. The rest of the miles flown came through the Athletics Department (43 percent), academics (11 percent), the ISU Foundation (8 percent), administration (6 percent) and Flight Service (4 percent).
Auditors found that Leath had flown on a university-owned aircraft 181 times since 2012 — 72 times on the Cirrus SR22, 65 times on the university’s King Air 350 and 44 times on the King Air 200, which the university owned before buying the 350.
Leath said he recently reimbursed the university for more than $19,000 to cover the costs of several of the flights flagged by the auditors. The check was made out to the ISU Foundation, he said, so that the money eventually could be distributed to the appropriate university accounts.
“I recognize that I used the university planes more frequently than was absolutely necessary and should have been more transparent about my use,” he said. “Moving forward, I will be more thoughtful, and I will work to ensure that any time the university planes are used, it is in the very best interest of Iowa State.”
Leath said he reimbursed the university for a March 2014 flight in which he picked up and dropped off his brother in Elmira, N.Y., en route to the NCAA basketball tournament. Flight Service had scheduled a refueling stop in Elmira in advance of the trip, but the auditors found the return stop in Elmira would not have been necessary other than to drop off passengers.
“Even though there was no additional cost incurred by the university, I understand why inviting my brother and his partner on the plane could be perceived as inappropriate,” he said. “As a result, I have paid for the amount that Flight Service would have attributed to my brother and his partner.”
Leath said he is planning to reimburse the university for the multiple training flights ISU’s insurance carrier required for his certification on the Cirrus. Although Leath had a pilot’s license when he became ISU president, his training on the Cirrus took place during his time at the Ames-based university.
“I see why my use of the Cirrus for training may be viewed as a personal benefit,” he said. “I have since asked Flight Service for a bill for the Cirrus and paid that bill.”
Leath said he also reimbursed the university for two of the seven trips to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for medical visits.
“At the time, I believed it was appropriate because I had to get back to Ames for important university commitments,” Leath said. “Even though this was within policy, I told (Regent Executive Director Bob Donley) that I would feel more comfortable if I paid for those flights myself, which I have done.”
The auditors said that the regents do not have a policy concerning an annual physical for university presidents or whether any associated travel expenses would be covered by the university.