In a report released Tuesday, the Iowa state auditor recommended Iowa State University seek reimbursement from Auburn President Steven Leath for the cost of a non-business flight he took on university aircraft when he was president at Iowa State and questioned whether the university needed the plane for business use.
The university’s internal audit department concluded that 52 of the 76 trips the plane was used for were for Leath to obtain qualifications for his own pilot's license.
"Based on the limited use of the Cirrus SR-22 for flights with clear business purposes, we question whether the purchase served a University purpose," the report says.
In July 2014, Iowa State purchased the Cirrus aircraft for $470,000 after trading in another plane without written approval from Bob Donley, then-executive director of Iowa State’s Board of Regents.
Donley told auditors he was aware of the purchase in advance, but did not have written evidence of his approval.
The auditor's report cites a specific flight on March 12, 2016, when Leath flew, along with another university pilot, on the university's plane to his home in North Carolina and then back to Iowa during Iowa State's spring break. That flight was noted as training for the university pilot.
“Because the trip was used to transport former President Leath to his home in North Carolina, the business purpose for the [trip] on March 12, 2016, is not clear and no further explanation has been provided,” the report reads. “[T]he University should determine what portion of the flight was personal and consider seeking reimbursement from former President Leath.”
Later that week, on March 15, 2016, Leath was flown back to North Carolina where he went to various locations across the country before returning to Iowa on March 19.
The university said the series of flights were for Leath to give a speech, attend a university programs meeting in Pittsburgh and attend an Iowa State basketball game in Denver.
In their response, Iowa State defended the purchase and use of the plane, saying the new Cirrus was "safer, faster and more efficient than the small aircraft previously owned by the University," and that Leath's ability to fly it would allow him to travel more efficiently.
Leath was on board the March 15 flight to provide oversight for the pilot and no additional costs were incurred by flying to North Carolina as opposed to elsewhere for the other pilot's training, the university said.
“President Leath’s presence on this flight also provided a business purpose and benefit to the University,” Iowa State said in their response. “As the University pilot confirmed, President Leath was the most experienced University approved pilot on the Cirrus SR22 aircraft and provided oversight for the fulltime pilot’s IFR compliance. ... The University believes that the flight had a legitimate business purpose and no further reimbursement is required.”
In June 2017, the university sold the plane for $450,000.
Leath's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In 2015, Leath made a hard-landing in the Cirrus single-engine plane that resulted in almost $14,000 worth of damage. He stopped flying the university’s plane and made a $15,000 donation to Iowa State’s scholarship fund shortly after reports came out revealing the crash.
Iowa State conducted an internal audit after the incident, concluding that his use of the plane entered “several shades of gray,” but “the [plane] use did not violate existing board policy,” and the regents agreed "with President Leath that we can and must do better.”
"The plane issue was poorly reported and taken to an extreme level," Leath wrote in an email to The Plainsman in March. "Two audits showed no policies were broken and as it turned out some of the flights questioned had been paid for by me."
Chip Brownlee, editor-in-chief, contributed reporting to this story.