AMES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa State University President Steven Leath has used a university plane to travel to and from the North Carolina town where he owns a mountain home on multiple occasions, to go on several fundraising trips with a celebrity bowhunter and to fly relatives to and from an NCAA basketball tournament game.
Records obtained exclusively by The Associated Press show the flights cost the university tens of thousands of dollars in private donations that could be used for other priorities and potentially violate policies that require travel expenses to be reasonable and business-related.
Leath, a pilot, has faced criticism after the AP revealed that he damaged the university's single-engine plane on a rough landing while flying home from an 11-day vacation in Jefferson, North Carolina, last year and had flown it to the state on three other trips that included personal business. He vowed last month to stop flying himself and wrote the university foundation a $15,000 check to cover the damage, while denying he violated any school policies or state law that bar the use of state resources for personal gain.
But the new records raise questions about additional trips Leath and his wife, Janet, have taken on the university's larger King Air plane, which is required to be flown by two school pilots. Invoices listing the details of hundreds of flights, including passengers, costs and destinations, were inadvertently posted online by the university, which abruptly took them down after learning the AP had them.
Leath hasn't responded to interview requests. But the university says all flights the Leaths have taken on the King Air had legitimate business purposes — often to meet with current and potential donors — or other justifications.
For instance, the school said it wasn't Leath's plan to take his brother Ken and sister-in-law on the plane to watch the Iowa State men's basketball team play Connecticut in 2014 in the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden. The pilots wanted to refuel before entering New York City airspace and unilaterally decided to stop at the airport in Horseheads, New York, before the game, allowing the couple who lives nearby to get on at no extra cost, the school said.
The university said the pilots planned a fuel stop there after the game as well, and the couple was dropped off.
Leath has defended his routine travel to Jefferson, North Carolina, by saying that he and his wife have entertained donors at their home — even though they live for free in a university mansion intended for such events. Leath worked for years in North Carolina before he was hired to lead Iowa State in 2011, and his family still owns a Christmas tree farm business there.
The university said one stop the plane made in Jefferson was to take advantage of "competitive fuel pricing" at its airport on the way from San Antonio to Washington, D.C. But it said other trips to Jefferson were for donor meetings or to pick Leath up for travel to other events. Leath hasn't reimbursed the university any of those trips — unlike four North Carolina trips he took on the smaller plane in which he paid back $4,700 — and has no plans to do so.
"Like most business trips, some or all of these trips may have had some personal component to them. ISU does not require any employee to be 'on the clock' 24/7 when traveling for business purposes on behalf of the University," spokesman John McCarroll said.
But school policies warn employees to take "particular care" when combining personal and business travel and not to schedule any for personal gain. Travelers are required to pay the cost of any indirect routes taken for personal convenience.
Most of Leath's flights have been billed to the "Greater University Fund," a pot of unrestricted donations to Iowa State's foundation that is advertised as helping the school's most critical needs. ISU's flight program charges $4.52 per mile flown to recover costs from the foundation, which was also used to purchase the two university planes for $2.9 million in 2014. The program charges $650 per day if pilots are required to have a layover.
Records show the plane dropped off the Leaths on May 24 in Jefferson after a fundraising trip to Florida. A week later, the plane was dispatched to Jefferson to take them to Dallas for a business trip — at a cost of $6,900. The closest airport, about two hours away in Greensboro, offers direct flights to Dallas for as little as $120 per person.
Leath, an avid hunter, has also taken professional archer John Dudley on four donor-funded trips that have mixed university business with hunting. Dudley, who hosts the "Nock On" hunting television show but has no apparent ties to Iowa State, has flown for free on the plane.
McCarroll said Dudley is a well-known outdoorsman who is helping Iowa State make fundraising contacts on two projects. He didn't respond to additional questions about the role of Dudley, who trains people how to bowhunt.
The Leaths and Dudley made a two-day trip to Raleigh, North Carolina, in March and stopped in Jefferson on their way back to Ames. The next week, the university plane returned to Jefferson to pick up Leath to take him to Pittsburgh.
Ames real estate agent Dean Hunziker recalled flying on the plane and hunting on trips to Texas and Indiana with Leath as part of talks with investor Steve Hageman to build private university housing — a proposal that hasn't panned out.
"He had a great big, hunting lodge" in Texas where a group that included Dudley and all three men's wives visited last year, Hunziker recalled. "We did shoot some ducks."
Two flights dropping off the group and picking them up four days later cost the fund $8,000.