ISU stonewalls, Leath plays the victim ahead of airplane use audit

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.

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Did ISU's president lie by omission on the university's insurance application?

Iowa State University and its President Steven Leath submitted incomplete information on the university’s application for aviation insurance this year, Ryan Foley reported for the Associated Press yesterday. The story’s title and lede refer to an August 2014 “hard landing” by Leath in an unidentified location, on a plane that did not belong to ISU. Two months after that incident, “Leath was cleared to fly solo on the university’s newly purchased Cirrus SR22 single-engine plane.” But the big news is further down:

After that [2015] insurance policy expired in February, the university switched its carrier to Catlin Insurance. Leath and the university were less forthcoming on their 2016 application than they were a year earlier, although it’s not clear whether that led to lower rates or better coverage.

The pilot history form signed by Leath asked him to disclose details of all prior accidents and incidents as a pilot, including dates, and warned that concealing material information was “a fraudulent insurance act” subject to criminal and civil penalties.

He listed the 2015 landing in Illinois, noting that it triggered a Federal Aviation Administration test ride that he passed. But he left off the 2014 incident. The university also attested in the application that it had no “aviation losses” during the last three years, even though the 2015 accident would have qualified and it had divulged the 2014 landing as a loss the previous year.

I don’t understand why the 2014 hard landing would be considered a loss for the university, if Leath wasn’t flying one of ISU’s planes.

But surely Leath was obliged to mention that incident on his pilot history. The excuse his spokesperson Megan Landolt provided to the AP–“Leath didn’t need to disclose the 2014 incident to the university’s aviation insurance broker, Nasom Associates, since he had done so in the prior year’s application”–sounds only slightly more plausible than the idea that ISU’s professional pilots “unilaterally” decided to refuel twice at a small airport that happened to be convenient for picking up Leath’s relatives. The form asked for a full list of events, not only those the pilot hadn’t disclosed on previous insurance applications.

ISU officials never did fully explain why the university didn’t submit an insurance claim for Leath’s July 2015 hard landing. Even if billing the ISU Foundation for repairs was a good business decision, failing to mention the incident on a subsequent insurance application points to incompetence on the part of ISU staff or, worse, a deliberate choice to conceal relevant facts from an insurance provider.

Auditors investigating ISU’s Flight Service on behalf of the Iowa Board of Regents and the State Auditor’s Office should review the documents Foley referenced.

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ISU president didn't follow university policy on transporting firearms

Since late September, Iowa State University President Steven Leath has repeatedly asserted that his use of ISU’s two airplanes was consistent with university policies.

Multiple audits and perhaps a criminal investigation will shed light on whether Leath violated ISU policy (and state law) on personal use of university property. Questionable flights include several unexplained trips to the city where the Mayo Clinic is located, stops at a New York airport to pick up and drop off Leath’s relatives, a trip to Kansas City after ISU had been eliminated from the Big 12 basketball tournament, and numerous visits to the town where Leath owns a home. On one of those trips, ISU’s plane was on the ground in North Carolina for only 37 minutes before returning to Ames.

Whatever conclusion investigators reach regarding Leath’s use of the airplanes, one fact is clear: the president has not complied with university policy on transporting weapons when using ISU’s Flight Service for various hunting trips.

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Story County attorney asked ISU police to investigate plane trip by ISU president

Pop quiz: Who is best positioned to investigate a possible violation of Iowa law by a state university president?

A. The top prosecutor in the county where the university is located

B. Officials in the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation

C. Attorneys in the Iowa Attorney General’s Office

D. A guy who reports to a guy who reports to the university president

If you picked “D,” you have something in common with Story County Attorney Jessica Reynolds.

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Iowa GOP spends big money promoting House candidate with unpaid federal taxes

Fighting for his political life in a district that’s trending away from him, Iowa House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow has approved hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign spending on television commercials. Two spots have trashed his Democratic challenger Jennifer Konfrst over accounting errors that led to some overdue taxes. The first Hagenow hit piece was blatantly false. The second ad, now in heavy rotation on Des Moines stations, is more narrowly focused on a tax lien put on Konfrst’s home more than a decade ago.

Republican Party of Iowa Chair Jeff Kaufmann portrayed Konfrst as unfit to serve because she made a mistake calculating child care expenses. After hiding from early media inquiries about his commercial, Hagenow defended the ad last week, telling the Des Moines Register, “One of the biggest jobs we deal with (in the Legislature) is spending taxpayers’ dollars […] And our focus has always been to handle that as responsibly as possible.”

So why did House Republican leaders give their blessing for the Iowa GOP to spend more than $93,000 promoting Shannon Lundgren, a House candidate with a much larger federal tax liability that “remains unpaid”?

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ISU slipped previously undisclosed airplane spending onto "FAQ" page

Pro tip: Promising to “be as open and transparent as possible” works better when you don’t keep concealing relevant facts from the public.

Iowa State University linked incomplete and redacted files on its page for “Frequently Asked Questions” about President Steven Leath’s use of university-owned airplanes. Staff employed several methods to prevent outsiders from obtaining information about the flights. In an October 22 editorial, the Des Moines Register described the “clumsy response” by ISU and Leath as “every bit as damaging to the university’s reputation as the original offense.”

I would add a few other points to the Register’s list. For instance, ISU quadrupled down on a cover story that makes no sense in order to explain questionable stops on one of Leath’s trips.

In addition, university officials quietly admitted in recent days that ISU’s Foundation spent much more than previously disclosed on one of the airplanes purchased in 2014.

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