AMES, Iowa — Iowa State University President Steven Leath damaged a private plane in a hard landing in 2014, 11 months before he banged up a university aircraft in remarkably similar fashion, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Leath was flying in gusty conditions on Aug. 11, 2014 and “landed hard” in a crosswind, causing propeller damage that he discovered the next day, according to university records released under the open records law.
The documents show that the university didn’t fully disclose information about both incidents in its application for aviation insurance earlier this year. It’s not clear whether this might affect the policy, which covers millions of dollars in liability and damage for both university planes. The policy, which cost $51,000 in premiums, contains a warning that it will be voided “if you have concealed or misrepresented any material fact.”
Despite the 2014 incident, Leath was cleared to fly solo on the university’s newly purchased Cirrus SR22 single-engine plane just two months later, records show. Leath damaged that $498,000 plane in a hard landing in July 2015 in Bloomington, Illinois, while he and his wife were flying home from a North Carolina vacation. He also blamed that incident on windy conditions.
AP’s revelation of that accident and other questionable trips by Leath, a private pilot, has prompted the Iowa Board of Regents to conduct an audit of university flights. Authorities are awaiting the audit’s conclusions before determining whether to open a criminal investigation of Leath, who paid back $17,500 for accident costs and vowed to stop flying himself. Leath has expressed regret but denied violating policies or a law barring the use of state assets for private gain.
Leath’s spokeswoman, Megan Landolt, declined to identify the plane Leath was flying during the August 2014 landing and where it happened. She said no school resources were involved in the incident, which came to light six months later when he listed a “hard landing with prop damage” on his pilot history in the university’s 2015 insurance application.
Learning about the 2014 incident “surprised us as it was not reported to our office at the time it occurred,” Deb Cramer, an insurance coordinator at the university’s risk management office, wrote in a February 2015 email obtained by AP. She asked the university’s insurance agent, LMC Insurance and Risk Management, whether the incident had to be disclosed on the application as an aviation loss.
An LMC representative told Cramer that the incident was considered a loss and that divulging it wasn’t expected to “have a negative impact on the renewal” of the university’s policy with State National Insurance. When Leath got into the 2015 accident, the school didn’t file an insurance claim and paid the $14,000 bill to repair the plane’s wings itself, calling it a business decision to avoid a premium hike.
After that 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.
Landolt said 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.
Catlin spokeswoman Christine Weirsky said details of client policies are confidential. “As far as what impact non-disclosure would have, we can’t comment on that. It’s an aspect of their coverage,” she said.
Scott Williams, an aviation attorney who is not affiliated with the school, Leath or Catlin Insurance, said it’s always best to over-disclose. But he said he doubted Catlin would have a solid legal reason for denying coverage, though it might try in the event of a claim.