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Audit Questions Iowa State’s Purchase of Plane for Ex-leader

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa State University had no clear need to spend $498,000 in donations to buy an airplane that former President Steven Leath used largely to improve his piloting skills, state auditors reported Tuesday.

Iowa State should also consider seeking reimbursement from Leath, now president of Auburn University, for a 2016 spring break trip in which a university pilot dropped him off at his North Carolina home, the report from State Auditor Mary Mosiman said.

Mosiman’s report comes one year after The Associated Press revealed that Leath used two university planes for trips that mixed personal and official business and damaged one in a hard landing. It came one day after the Board of Regents voted to hire longtime Iowa State dean Wendy Wintersteen to replace Leath, who accepted the Auburn job last spring.

Leath reimbursed the university $40,000 to cover damage from the hard landing and dozens of trips that lacked business justification. Those included 55 hours of personal flight training to obtain his instrument rating, multiple trips to appointments at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, to take relatives to an NCAA tournament basketball game, and to visit his home in Jefferson, North Carolina.

Leath, a pilot, approved the use of university donations to buy the four-seat Cirrus SR-22 in 2014. The money came from the Greater University Fund For Excellence, which Iowa State had told donors would be used at the president’s discretion for the university’s most critical needs.

Tuesday’s audit confirmed that 52 of 76 Cirrus trips were for Leath to train for his instrument rating, which allowed him to fly by himself in all conditions and was required by the university’s aviation insurer for pilots.

“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 audit concluded.

Iowa State told auditors the purchase was appropriate because the donations weren’t earmarked for a specific purpose and the airplane helped facilitate Leath’s fundraising.

The audit noted the university did not get written permission for the purchase from Bob Donley, then-executive director of the regents, as required by policy. Instead, a university vice president received verbal approval from Donley to proceed with the purchase. The university sold the Cirrus this year for $450,000, saying it was no longer needed.

Tuesday’s audit reported that Leath didn’t pay the university back for a March 2016 flight in which a university pilot dropped off Leath in North Carolina and returned to Ames the same day. The pilot returned to North Carolina days later to pick up Leath, the report said.

The university said the flight “had a legitimate business purpose” of providing necessary training to one the university’s full-time pilots, who flew under Leath’s oversight. While Leath received a free trip, the audit didn’t identify additional cost associated with taking the training flight to North Carolina instead of elsewhere and reimbursement won’t be sought, the school said.

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