AMES, Iowa — Iowa State University President Steven Leath said he will be more cautious about mixing personal and official business after facing criticism over his use of university airplanes and a $1.1 million private land deal with his boss.
Leath told the university’s student government Wednesday night that he misjudged how both issues would be perceived by the public and that “I’ve learned my lesson.” He apologized for the negative attention his actions have brought the school of 36,000 students and said he would do many things differently in hindsight.
“I’ll be different,” said Leath, who has been at Iowa State since 2012. “We will be very, very mindful of what we do going forward. I’ve learned from this.”
Leath spoke before the student government approved a resolution calling on the Iowa Board of Regents to order an independent inquiry into his frequent use of two university airplanes. The board had already announced a “compliance review” of university policies on equipment use and travel hours earlier.
A pilot, Leath has been under fire after The Associated Press revealed that he damaged a university plane in a hard landing on his way home from a vacation in North Carolina last year. He has acknowledged taking that plane on four trips to North Carolina, where he owns a mountain home and business, that mixed personal and official affairs.
For the first time Wednesday, Leath also admitted to mistakes in his use of the university’s second aircraft flown by school pilots. He said he regrets transporting his brother and sister-in-law on the plane to and from an NCAA basketball tournament game in 2014. He also said the plane should not have been sent to pick him up on June 1 in North Carolina after he took a few days off at his home there.
Leath said he would pay more attention to the details of his travel and limit how often he flies in university planes. He had already vowed to stop flying himself.
The plane controversy has revived questions about a land purchase involving Leath and Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter, a powerful agribusinessman who is Leath’s boss and would oversee any investigation into Leath’s conduct.
Leath said Wednesday that he and his wife, Janet, were looking for recreational land to build a home in central Iowa last year and were advised by real estate experts that “finding an affordable farm” there would be difficult.
He said that a 215-acre plot came up for sale in Hardin County that was “bigger than we wanted.” Leath said that he and Rastetter looked at the property and decided to split it up if they could buy it together.
The two agreed on a bid price and Rastetter’s company, Summit Agricultural Group, bought the land for $1.14 million at a public auction, Leath said. Once a survey was completed, a Leath family corporation purchased 145 acres for $623,000 in January while Summit kept the farmland.
Leath said that he didn’t get any special treatment on the purchase, and that it should be seen as a positive that he and his family wants to settle in Iowa. But he said he understood why critics would question his private business with Rastetter.
“If I had to do it all over again, I probably wouldn’t do it the same way, which is a sad thing,” he said.
Rastetter and the regents had voted months before the land purchase to approve a five-year contract that promised Leath at least $2.6 million in salary through June 2020 as long as he isn’t fired for cause. Leath said he told Rastetter about the plane accident but doesn’t recall whether it was before that vote.