Administration

Regent: Response to ISU plane scandal was 'slap in the face'

The Board of Regents' decision to take no action against Iowa State University President Steven Leath for misusing university airplanes was "a slap in the face" to taxpayers, a regent later complained to his colleagues.

Regent Subhash Sahai told board leaders in a Dec. 20 email that he was embarrassed that the board let Leath off the hook, saying that any other professional "would have been severely sanctioned." He rebutted Regent Larry McKibben, who had praised Leath's apology and corrective actions by saying "Glory Hallelujah."

"It was not 'Glory Hallelujah' but a slap in the face of common sense of the people of State of Iowa, what ISU stands for, transparency and accountability that we have been working so hard on for past 3 years," Sahai wrote to McKibben, Board President Bruce Rastetter and Pro Tem Katie Mulholland in the email, which was obtained Wednesday through an open records request. He said university presidents should be held to the highest standards because they set "legal, ethical but also moral standards for our future citizens."

Sahai was sick and missed a Dec. 12 meeting in which the board received an audit questioning dozens of flights that Leath took on two university planes he purchased and upgraded with nearly $4 million in private donations. Leath routinely piloted one of the planes and once damaged it in a hard landing while returning home from a North Carolina vacation, an incident not shared with Sahai and some other board members.

Leath has paid back nearly $40,000 for damage to the plane and trips related to his personal flight training, medical appointments at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and taking relatives to and from an NCAA tournament basketball game. Rastetter and McKibben praised Leath for taking that action and indicated his job was safe.

In a statement, Rastetter said it was "unfortunate" that Sahai was unable to attend the meeting, which included a lengthy closed-door evaluation of Leath's performance. He said the eight regents who were present "unanimously came to a different conclusion."

Other emails released Wednesday show that several members of the public, whose names were redacted, asked the board to terminate Leath before and after the meeting. One retired corporate executive said he would suspend donations to Iowa State as long as Leath is president, rescinding a plan to give his estate to the school.

A retiree who had been an Iowa State professor for 38 years said that retaining Leath sets a "double standard for university administrators" compared to other students and employees, who would be expelled or fired for similar conduct. Another resident wrote to the board that it was "time for this high-flying, hard landing embarrassment of a university president to be grounded."

Rastetter didn't respond to those emails but told reporters last month that Leath had paid back the university for any questionable flights and deserved "our continued trust and support."

The board refused to release a list of 52 trips that Leath claimed were for his personal flight training. Auditors obtained the list by reviewing Leath's personal flight log but didn't retain the document, and any notes from the log are confidential, board spokesman Josh Lehman said.

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Follow Ryan J. Foley on Twitter at https://twitter.com/rjfoley