Unanswered questions about ISU airplane use will stay that way--for now

Earlier this month, Iowa State University President Steven Leath promised to be “open and transparent” regarding his use of university-owned aircraft.

ISU’s follow-through has left a lot to be desired.

Concealing data on Leath’s travel companions

The new “Frequently Asked Questions” page, which ISU launched on October 12, is missing important data that could show whether Leath or his friends personally benefited from any flights on ISU’s King Air. Ryan Foley reported today for the Associated Press,

Iowa State University is trying to shield the names of nearly two dozen people who have flown on a school airplane with President Steven Leath, including his best friend, a National Rifle Association Board member and an infamous athletics booster.

The university last week released records showing flights that Leath took in the last 2 ½ years on its King Air. But the university redacted names of passengers who joined Leath on trips that have come under scrutiny following an investigation by The Associated Press.

The AP obtained passengers’ names from flight billing records that had been available on a university website and were removed last month. Iowa State said the records were inadvertently posted and contained confidential donor information — even though they didn’t indicate whether passengers had given to ISU. […]

Many of those whose identities the school is shielding have ties to hunting, which is among Leath’s favorite hobbies. Leath has defended his travel and hunting outings as critical to fundraising.

Speaking to Iowa State Daily reporters on October 5, Leath insisted “personal information about the donors” had been listed on documents ISU took offline. But today’s Des Moines Register story by Jason Clayworth and Jeff Charis-Carlson confirms,

The records removed from the school’s website did not list donor names, according to copies that the Register downloaded before their removal. Those records listed names of passengers on the planes, departure and arrival information, dates of the flights, number of miles flown and cost.

Leath has portrayed himself as a victim of media “distortions,” claiming “there is some cruel irony in the fact that I’m doing exactly what I was asked to do, doing it better than anyone’s ever done it here and getting criticized for it.” Alluding to the AP’s Foley as “a difficult writer to deal with,” he alleged the reporter had asked ISU donors “totally inappropriate” questions such as how much various individuals had given to the university.

Foley told the Des Moines Register “that he had only spoken with one donor before the record removals and had asked about the purpose of the trips and not donations.”

I reject Leath’s premise that it would be inappropriate for a reporter to ask passengers about donations. These people flew on a public aircraft at the invitation of a public university president. Leath loves to talk about his fundraising success. Iowans have a right to know how many of his guests on the King Air were actually donors and how many were just hunting buddies. Randy Evans, a longtime journalist who is now executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, is right: the public can’t determine whether Leath’s trips are justified if ISU refuses to disclose passenger names.

Blocking the public from tracking movements of ISU’s smaller plane

Less than a week after Leath promised to be transparent, ISU removed the university’s smaller Cirrus SR22 plane (which Leath had piloted) from a tracking service that had revealed its movements in recent months.

Clayworth and Charis-Carlson reported today,

The Register asked university spokesman John McCarroll to explain why the university had removed information from the FlightAware website that was available before the scandal. McCarroll responded with a one-sentence email, saying the information was blocked for both university-owned aircraft “for reasons of security, donor privacy and athletic recruiting.”

“The only intention we had in removing the records was to ensure that information not subject to public disclosure was removed,” Megan Landolt, Leath’s assistant for communications, said via email. “Everything else has been publicly released.”

Athletics staff mostly use the larger King Air for recruiting, not the Cirrus. (Leath, speaking to the Iowa State Daily about the King Air: “Athletics uses it way more than me.”) Leath told ISU’s Student Government on October 5 that “he has more training on Cirrus planes than the university’s other three professional pilots combined” and acknowledged that the Cirrus “may not get enough use to justify” keeping it, now that the president has promised not to fly it anymore.

Refusing to answer follow-up questions

Document dumps can create the illusion of transparency without releasing all relevant information. So it was with ISU’s “Frequently Asked Questions” page. The site answers a lot of questions, even if not always in a convincing way. It also includes links to some documents that reporters had been seeking for weeks, such as the university’s aviation insurance policies.

But ISU communications staff have ignored or refused to answer follow-up questions on a range of issues. Here are a few examples:

1) I asked why the university took out aviation insurance from a new company in 2016. The new policy’s premium wasn’t lower than the old one’s. Did the former carrier decide not to insure ISU anymore? No response.

2) I’ve repeatedly asked whether ISU’s professional pilots are instructed to select refueling sites that sell cheaper fuel. No response.

3) The revelation that Jim Kurtenbach gave Leath piloting lessons in late 2014 raised many additional questions, because around the same time, Kurtenbach got a high-paying gig at ISU on an interim basis, without having to go through an open search process. About a year and a half later, he received a permanent appointment to the same job, again without any search process. ISU policy calls for advertising open positions, but Leath waived that requirement for Kurtenbach.

ISU’s FAQ page attempted to shut down any hint of impropriety, saying Provost Jonathan Wickert (not Leath) spoke with Kurtenbach about returning to ISU as vice president and chief information officer in November 2014. The FAQ went on to say,

Kurtenbach did not permanently become Chief Information Officer until July 1, 2016, nearly 18 months after President Leath’s last lesson from him. The fact that President Leath took some flight lessons from Kurtenbach had absolutely nothing to do with his university employment. To suggest otherwise ignores Kurtenbach’s stellar qualifications, which include his service as associate dean in the College of Engineering, his leadership roles in several technology companies, and his demonstrated excellence as interim CIO.

If ISU had conducted an open search, we’d have a better sense of whether Kurtenbach was really the most-qualified candidate for the job. But I digress.

Another part of the same section on the FAQ page was vague: “Jim Kurtenbach, who is one of the most respected pilots in the state, offered to give him lessons. President Leath took lessons under Jim from Oct. 18, 2014, to Jan. 12, 2015. The university has not paid for any flight training received by President Leath.” (The last sentence is noteworthy because if ISU had paid for Leath’s flight training, the value of the lessons would be taxable income.)

I asked ISU communications staff including Leath’s assistant Megan Landolt to clarify: “When you say Kurtenbach ‘offered to give him lessons,’ do you mean offered the lessons as a gift (at no charge)? Or do you mean offered to teach the lessons, and President Leath paid for them out of pocket?”

The distinction is important because if Leath did not pay for the lessons, he may have violated Iowa’s gift law.

In addition, a certified public accountant explained to me, under federal tax law a “true gift means no quid–pro-quo benefits in exchange. If it can be proven that Kurtenbach received the job as a result of /or was compensating Leath for getting the position, then it is no longer a gift, and becomes taxable remuneration, commonly known as bartering. Clearly, the IRS would require this value to be taxed.”

No one from ISU has confirmed whether Leath paid anything for his flying lessons with Kurtenbach. Without those lessons, he would have been unable to fly himself around on the Cirrus SR22 in 2015 and 2016. (LATE UPDATE: During an October 20 press conference, Leath told reporters he offered to pay Kurtenbach, but “as he said to dozens and dozens and dozens of students before me, he normally does not charge or accept any money for his lessons. He does it out of a passion for flying. So I felt really fortunate to be able to fly with him, and he’s been very kind and generous to me as he’s been to dozens of other pilots.”)

4) Last week, I noticed Leath’s March 2014 flights were missing from the “Daily Trip Information Sheets” posted on the FAQ page. Those flights are among the most controversial, because the King Air made extra stops to pick up and drop off Leath’s relatives, adding to the cost of a trip to the east coast for an NCAA tournament basketball game. The pretext for omitting them from the FAQ page seems to be that they involved ISU’s older King Air, sold during the spring of 2014 after the university acquired a $2.875 million King Air using foundation funds. (LATE UPDATE: Landolt confirmed via e-mail on October 24 that the March 2014 flights happened on the older King Air 200, which is why trip information sheets were left off the document linked from the FAQ. ISU purchased the King Air 350 in February 2014 but only started using it after paying for nearly $600,000 in refurbishments.)

After I requested the trip information sheets for those flights, Leath’s assistant Landolt informed me by e-mail on October 14, “We do not anticipate any additional updates to the FAQ until after the Board of Regents has completed its review.” That’s a general “compliance review of policies regarding use of equipment and travel at each of the three Regent universities,” not an investigation of Leath’s activities specifically.

Speaking of which,

The Board of Regents won’t separately investigate Leath’s airplane use

ISU’s Student Government Senate approved a resolution on October 5 urging the Iowa Board of Regents “to arrange an independent inquiry into President Leath’s past and current use of the university airplanes.” Board of Regents Executive Director Bob Donley informed the student senators in an October 14 letter that the Regents will not separately investigate Leath’s use of university-owned aircraft.

Donley wrote, “the Iowa Board of Regents requested the Chief Audit Executive, Mr. Todd Stewart review current policy and procedures regarding the use of state property and travel at all three institutions.” He added that the regents will likely “discuss the use of the planes and make recommendations for further action” at their meeting scheduled for October 20.

Leath will come to that meeting; last week he sent the regents a detailed defense of his use of university aircraft.

One of the nine regents, Dr. Subhash Sahai, appears poised to ask Leath some tough questions. The others have not made any public comments to suggest they are concerned about recent revelations. On the contrary, one of the regents seemed to discount any reason to consider possible misconduct by Leath. Charis-Carlson reported for the Des Moines Register on October 15,

Regent Larry McKibben, who chairs the board’s Audit/Compliance and Investment Committee, described a forward-looking policy review as “an appropriate response” from the board staff.

“I don’t spend a lot of time looking backward,” McKibben said. “… We basically intend to do a deep dive on the policies at all three universities and see if there are any policy adjustments that need to be made.”

Sure, why look backward? I mean, we’re only talking about a possible violation of ISU policy and state law.

Plus the small matter of Leath failing to inform the board about his July 2015 hard landing before regents voted on his latest lucrative contract extension.

And possibly getting a tax deduction on “donations” to the ISU Foundation, when he should have paid for costs associated with the hard landing last year.

And downplaying the extent of repairs the Cirrus needed after that incident.

And sticking to a story that can’t withstand scrutiny to explain how his relatives hitched a ride on the King Air.

ISU officials appear to be planning to stonewall long enough for this controversy to fade away. Good luck with that.

UPDATE: Speaking to Vanessa Miller of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, McKibben made clear the coming review will not change his opinion of Leath.

“We are going to look at the policies, and it could well be that we have to make some adjustments,” McKibben said. “It may be the regents have to tighten some restrictions.”

The committee expects to prepare a full report by the board’s December meeting, McKibben said. And although he has questions about how all the state university presidents travel and use school equipment, McKibben said he’s not going into the review with “a hatchet in my hand.”

McKibben also commented on Leath’s job security, despite the negative news.

“I’m so proud of the work he’s done over there and the growth of the university since he’s been president,” McKibben said. “Iowa State continues to be a very well ranked AAU university. A ding on an airplane wing is not going to mess up the good work that’s been done.”

Why serve on an oversight body if you’re going to prejudge the outcome before learning all the relevant facts? Leath’s questionable use of ISU aircraft goes far beyond the July 2015 hard landing.

Meanwhile, Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter moved quickly to circle the wagons after this controversy arose last month. Miller reported that in late September, Rastetter reached out to Leath’s office for “points of pride related to President Leath’s tenure at Iowa State.” Landolt provided a list, and Leath later sent more to Regents Executive Director Donley

That email exchange, obtained by The Gazette, came three days after Regent Subhash Sahai expressed outrage at not being told of Leath’s plane use and a hard landing he experienced more than a year ago that damaged both wings on ISU’s Cirrus SR22, costing $17,373.70.

“I am dumbfounded and outraged at the news stories that have appeared about private use of the ISU plane by President Leath,” Sahai wrote in a Sept. 26 email to Donley and regents spokesman Josh Lehman. “Who knew about it and when? Why were not the other board members (I am assuming I was not the only left out) apprised of the situation?”

Sahai followed up that email with another on Oct. 5 listing questions, like how many times were the planes used and how is the university reimbursed? He also asked the board leadership to find out who uses the planes most, when Leath informed Rastetter about the incident, and why no insurance claim was filed.

ISU has refused to answer some of Miller’s questions: “Landolt, for example, hasn’t said how often the three ISU Flight Service pilots have flown the Cirrus since its purchase in 2014. And to the question of when Leath notified Rastetter, Landolt said Leath told him ‘sometime after the incident.’”

The Board of Regents staff are assisting the stonewalling effort. On October 7, Regents staff told the AP’s Foley “there are no” e-mails pertaining to Leath’s airplane use. Miller’s story proves that was a lie (see update below).

Live audio from the Regents’ October 19 and 20 meeting will be available here. How many board members will join Rastetter and McKibben in reflexively defending Leath’s conduct?

SECOND UPDATE/CORRECTION: Iowa Board of Regents spokesperson Josh Lehman took issue with my characterization of his actions. He responded by e-mail,

You state in your blog today that:

The Board of Regents staff are assisting the stonewalling effort. On October 7, Regents staff told the AP’s Foley “there are no” e-mails pertaining to Leath’s airplane use. Miller’s story proves that was a lie

Ryan made an open records request for a emails with me, with dates going back as far as January 1, 2014, and ending with the present. He sent that email on Sept. 20 so that is the end range for when to search for emails. There were no emails responsive to his request with the date range subject matter he requested, and I notified him of that on Oct. 7.

Here’s an excellent example of an official source interpreting a records request as narrowly as possible to avoid giving a journalist relevant material. Foley requested e-mails from January 1, 2014 to “the present.” He obviously would have been interested in any communication between members of the Board of Regents or staff following the publication of his first story about Leath’s hard landing on September 23. Lehman knew that, but after delaying his response, he gave Foley the impression there was no correspondence among the Regents about ISU airplanes.

Technically, Lehman did not lie, so I should not have said he did. An example of a lie would be Leath and ISU staff insisting that it cost nothing extra for ISU’s King Air to make two stops in Elmira Corning in March 2014.

In other news, Foley reported on October 19,

Prosecutor Rob Sand, who has pursued white-collar crime and misconduct by public officials, sought and obtained public records about Leath’s plane accident after it was revealed last month. But his inquiry was ended within days when leaders of the Board of Regents learned about it and had the board’s lawyer contact Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller’s office, where Sand is an assistant attorney general.

Sand’s supervisors were unaware he was looking into the matter and felt it was inappropriate because police, not prosecutors, generally conduct criminal investigations, said attorney general’s office spokesman Geoff Greenwood. In addition, the office doesn’t have jurisdiction to bring charges unless a case is referred by a county prosecutor, which hasn’t happened, he said.

The information that Sand gathered was forwarded to Story County Attorney Jessica Reynolds, who said Wednesday she didn’t see any reason to investigate further. […]

Iowa State spokesman John McCarroll learned of Sand’s inquiry from an [Illinois] airport official Sept. 29, after he made his own records request.

Leaders of the Board of Regents, who govern Iowa State and have supported Leath, learned of Sand’s inquiry later that evening, according to a board statement issued Wednesday. The board’s counsel, Aimee Claeys, the next morning contacted the attorney general’s office — which, in addition to prosecuting criminals, also defends the regents and the universities.

So, the Board of Regents counsel sprang into action to shut down an inquiry into possible misconduct by Leath. I wish someone with investigative power would apply that kind of energy to determining whether Leath or the ISU Foundation broke any rules or laws.

OCTOBER 21 UPDATE: The State Auditor’s office is looking into this matter, and the Board of Regents voted on October 20 for a full audit of Flight Service flights since Leath arrived at ISU. Bleeding Heartland’s post on those developments is here.

Donley to ISU Student Government photo RegentstoISUstudentgovt_zpsom7ezajp.jpg

  • National News Media Discovering Iowa Crony Corruption

    Foley’s story today about the web of crony corruption completely sleaze-dominating Iowa governance of the Regent’s institution is blowing up nationally. I see the story from San Francisco to Houston to Washington DC.

    This growing ring of corruption now reaches into the Story CO’s attorney’s office (Jessica Reynolds), the BOR (Donley, and attorney Aimee Claeys) to the puppets under Iowa AG Tom Miller.

    Donley (himself tainted with his corrupt double salary arrangement), Rastetter, Leath, Lehman, McKibben, Mulholland, must al be working overtime to cover up one more scandal –Leathgate.

    Throw in Harreld, Robillard, Braun, and all the weasels who got no-advertise jobs and no-bid contracts, are running amok in the state without any responsibility/accountability to the law, to the taxpayers, and to the students and parents of Regents schools.

    Considering ISU and Iowa ae federally subsidized institutions isn’t it time that after the malfeasance at the state level, that some honest agency with integrity (federal) investigate and bring to justice these conspirators?

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