Any day now, the internal auditor for the Iowa Board of Regents may complete his review of all plane trips on Iowa State University's Flight Service since President Steven Leath came to ISU nearly five years ago.
Although Leath has promised to be "as open and transparent as possible" regarding his airplane use, ISU officials have steadfastly refused to clarify certain details about specific flights or university practices. Reporters probing facts not found on the "frequently asked questions" page keep getting the same runaround: ISU cannot comment, so as not to "jeopardize the integrity of the audit."
ISU has also slow-walked some information requests related to the airplane controversy. Ten days since the university's Public Records Office received my payment for one set of records, I'm still waiting for documents that were supposed to take only 3.5 hours to compile. The delay will prevent me from reporting on a potentially newsworthy angle before Todd Stewart sends his findings to the Board of Regents. Depending on when the material arrives, how long it takes to review it, and whether ISU answers follow-up questions promptly, I may not be able to publish before board members convene a special meeting to discuss the internal audit.
Leath complained last week about supposedly "vicious personal attacks" in media coverage of the airplane controversy. It's not the first time he has claimed to endure "unfair" treatment by writers supposedly engaged in "distortions" and asking "inappropriate" questions.
In reality, "planegate" reporting has addressed Leath's conduct and use of university resources, not his personal qualities.
STONEWALLING UNDER THE GUISE OF TRANSPARENCY
What began as news about a previously undisclosed hard landing quickly grew into a story with many avenues to explore. But nailing down relevant facts has not been easy. The university's FAQ page has sometimes been inconsistent with other documents. ISU staff evade some questions about contradictions or gaps in the available information.
For example, last week I asked which professional pilot flew the university's Cirrus SR22 on a certain date. The flight logs linked here don't contain pilot information. Leath's communications assistant Megan Landolt replied,
The Board of Regents comprehensive internal audit is reviewing every flight by every user of ISU Flight Service. We want to be respectful of the internal audit process and avoid doing anything that could jeopardize the integrity of the audit. Therefore, we will not be commenting on specific flights until the audit is complete.
I don't know why Landolt chose not to tell me which pilot was flying the plane that day, but I do know confirming his identity would not affect what Stewart can learn about any Flight Service trips. Similarly, telling the Iowa State Daily whether Leath transported weapons on university planes--in apparent violation of ISU policy--would not "jeopardize the integrity of the audit" either.
When I challenged Landolt's claim to transparency while hiding behind weak excuses, she objected, "We are being fully cooperative and transparent; we’re answering all of the auditors’ questions and providing them all requested information within the scope of their audit."
Pressed again on her refusal to answer my simple question, which would in no way hinder or compromise the auditor's work, Landolt shifted gears:
As we acknowledged weeks ago, we have discovered a number of discrepancies in ISU Flight Service records. As part of the audit, these discrepancies are being reconciled. I don’t want to comment on any individual flights until the audit is complete because I don’t want to provide what could be incorrect information.
For some reason, ISU didn't want to give me that information. I don't take it personally, because university staff have also:
• moved to shield names of some passengers on the university's King Air;
• blocked reporters from tracking ISU flights through the FlightAware website;
• dodged Alex Hanson's question about weapons on ISU aircraft; and
• declined to tell Vanessa Miller "how often the three ISU Flight Service pilots have flown the Cirrus since its purchase in 2014."
That list is by no means exhaustive. I'm just trying to convey the limits of Leath's transparency pledge.
Viewing the glass as half-full, at least Landolt replied when I tried to confirm the pilot's name. Some of my e-mails with airplane-related questions disappear into the ether, including two queries this week about ISU's failure to provide documents for which the Public Records Office received payment on November 28. After I sent a third message, asking whether ISU was stalling until Stewart completed his audit, Landolt assured me,
We are working on gathering and reviewing the documents you have requested. Potentially responsive documents are maintained in several different offices. There has been no instruction to or intention to delay the response. Our Public Records Officer will provide the responsive documents to you as soon as they have been gathered and reviewed for production.
As mentioned above, ISU estimated that fulfilling this request would take 3.5 hours of staff time. More than seven business days have passed since my check arrived.
I've had better luck recently when seeking information on topics not connected to the airplane scandal. John McCarroll (executive director of ISU's university relations department) provided details on funds for the Iowa Energy Center less than two hours after I sent my original e-mail. He answered a follow-up question quickly as well.
SCRUTINY OF A PUBLIC FIGURE, OR "VICIOUS PERSONAL ATTACKS"?
Perry Beeman interviewed Leath for an hour about highlights from five years of service as ISU's president. Most of the transcript lies behind a Des Moines Business Record paywall. Leath professed love for the university community and said he has no plans to quit his job, even though "The media certainly are taking a lot of fun out of it." When discussing the airplane controversy, he elaborated on his journalism critique:
“Some of the stuff I’m going through now is just unbelievable,” he said. “With all the great things about Iowa, and we love it here, the vicious personal attacks were unexpected. The intensity of it was unexpected. Frankly, I think it’s unnecessary. It is what it is.
“I am not naive. I know that I am a public figure and you expect scrutiny. But the level is hard to believe. I got a freedom of information request (Nov.16) for six months of my emails that had the words “dog” and “dogs.” When you get to the point where people are FOI-ing you about your dog. ... “Puppy” was in the list. My youngest dog is 7. I haven’t had a puppy for a long time.
“That level (of scrutiny) is disappointing because the truth of the matter is it’s a distraction for me, it takes (staff) resources, it takes time away from the things we should be doing, and it takes money. “Frankly, I don’t understand it. I understand transparency, openness, and we put lots of stuff on our website. When it gets down to that level, like your dogs, it’s like, ‘My goodness, people.’ ”
Asked if he knew what the dog email request is about, Leath said: “We are clueless.”
Leath said the coverage, much of it by the Associated Press and The Des Moines Register, seemed vindictive and personal. [...]
“The personal nature of it (is surprising). The assault on integrity, rather than, ‘Let’s get the story.’ [...]”
I submitted the FOIA referencing dogs, which was for a shorter time span than six months. Though it may sound strange, I had a legitimate reason to seek those records. (The documents I should have received last week were part of a separate request.)
Leath's charges about vindictive, personal attacks are absurd. In style and format, "planegate" stories for the Associated Press or Des Moines Register differ from those at blogs like Bleeding Heartland, Iowa Informer, and Ditchwalk. But everyone writing about the airplane scandal has one thing in common: we are focused on Leath's actions, not his personality. I would never have taken any interest in Leath if not for his own troubling conduct.
The Des Moines Business Record described "media coverage suggesting [Leath] acted inappropriately in not making the [hard landing] incidents public when they occurred. Leath paid for the damage to ISU’s plane and has decided he won’t fly ISU’s planes anymore." That summary barely scratches the surface. Not only were ordinary Iowans in the dark, Leath didn't inform the Board of Regents before his overseers extended his contract. He didn't offer to cover the cost of repairs until his hard landing made news more than a year later. Other possibly inappropriate or illegal behavior:
• Did Leath take university airplanes on personal trips other than the four times he reimbursed ISU for transportation costs? More than a few flights on ISU's planes raise questions about whether the president's travel had any business purpose. On one occasion, the Cirrus was on the ground in North Carolina for only 37 minutes before returning to Ames.
• Did Leath authorize trips the Internal Revenue Service might consider "excess benefit transactions" by ISU's Foundation?
• Did Leath lie and have other ISU officials lie on his behalf to explain why the university's King Air picked up and dropped off his relatives?
• Did Leath violate university policy on transporting weapons?
• Did Leath and ISU omit material facts on the university's application for aviation insurance?
Since Beeman interviewed Leath, Foley revealed yet another chapter in the airplane saga:
Iowa State University spent up to $225 per hour to rent an airplane for President Steven Leath to fly himself to meetings on multiple occasions even as an older school plane that he piloted sat unused.
The university rented the plane from prominent Ames landlord Brent Haverkamp, who was later awarded a lease to store his planes in an Iowa State hangar after the school evicted a longtime tenant [...].
Click through for details on Leath's pricey rentals and the "unusual but mutually beneficial relationship" between ISU and Haverkamp at the Ames airport.
Asked by the Business Record's Beeman whether he retains the support of the regents, Leath replied,
I think so. They look at a body of work. I think they are reasonable people. If there are changes suggested in the final audit (of travel policies), we will make them.
In about a week, we'll know whether the internal auditor uncovered malfeasance or merely poor record-keeping at ISU's Flight Service. Perhaps Leath is right, and his mistakes or misconduct will not be a deal-breaker for those reasonable souls on the Board of Regents.
Unless Stewart's audit is much more thorough than I expect, unanswered questions about Leath's airplane habit will keep me (and others) busy for a while yet. Believe me: it's nothing personal.