AMES, Iowa ― Iowa State University’s president was returning from an 11-day personal trip to North Carolina when he damaged a small university-owned airplane in a rough landing, the school confirmed Saturday.
President Steven Leath, a pilot, flew himself and his wife on July 3, 2015, in the university’s Cirrus SR22 to Ashe County, North Carolina, where he owns a home and helps manage a family-owned Christmas tree farm. A university spokesman said Leath met with a potential donor and had personal time in the state, where he worked for years in the university system before starting at Iowa State in 2012.
While returning 11 days later, Leath caused “substantial damage” to the plane after he hit the runway with one wing and a runway light with the other upon landing in Bloomington, Illinois. Leath has blamed gusty conditions for the incident, but flight experts told The Associated Press it appears to have been pilot error.
University spokesman John McCarroll said Leath reimbursed the university for part of the flight costs in November 2015. The plane was landing in Illinois for a refueling stop, he said.
The university, which is responsible for the aircraft maintenance, paid for the $12,000 in repairs to the plane instead of filing an insurance claim because “we had the money,” McCarroll said. The plane was also stored at the Bloomington airport for three or four weeks, but the cost of that wasn’t immediately available.
In addition, the university sent its other aircraft to pick up the Leaths in Bloomington at a cost of $2,200 that was billed to the “Greater University Fund,” a pot of unrestricted donations that Leath controls.
Leath reimbursed the university a total of $3,500 for three other trips to North Carolina in which he used the plane, including one last month. The reimbursements have been paid at a rate of $125 per hour to cover costs such as fuel, McCarroll said. Several private companies advertise hourly rates of around $300 to rent similar aircraft.
The trips were either a mix of university and personal business or instances in which a business trip was scheduled before or after personal trips and Leath needed the flexibility of the school’s plane to meet his official obligations, McCarroll said.
Still, Leath’s routine use of a university aircraft for personal travel would appear to conflict with school policies and, possibly, with state law. Any public official who uses state-owned property for “any private purpose or for personal gain to the detriment of the state” is guilty of a serious misdemeanor. Noting that prohibition, university policy says employees cannot remove any kind of university property “for personal use from the buildings or grounds,” even if it may seem to be of no value.
In addition, university policy requires employees to schedule their travel “in a manner that excludes consideration of personal gain.” And policy of the Iowa Board of Regents, which governs the school, requires leaders such as Leath to “serve as role models and stewards of the institution’s finances” and “promote, by personal example, ethical behavior among employees.”
McCarroll said Leath did not inform the Iowa Board of Regents about the accident “immediately after” it happened, but that he informed Board President Bruce Rastetter at an unspecified later date.
Weeks after the accident, the board voted on Aug. 5, 2015 to extend Leath’s contract through June 2020. The contract guarantees Leath his full annual salary of $525,000 if the board fires him without cause ― a buyout that would be about $2 million today.
Rastetter issued a brief statement Friday saying he was aware of Leath’s use of the plane: “He is a licensed pilot and can fly aircraft for which he is certified.”