AMES, Iowa — Iowa State University President Steven Leath received personal flight lessons from a former Republican lawmaker who was appointed around the same time into a high-paying university job without a search, Leath acknowledged Friday.
Leath told the Iowa State Daily student newspaper that now-university vice president Jim Kurtenbach helped him train in late 2014 to obtain an instrument rating that allowed Leath to fly the university’s single-engine plane by himself.
In November of that year, the school announced that it had cancelled a planned national search and that Kurtenbach, a former ISU associate dean, had been selected to return as interim vice president and chief information officer.
The acknowledgment adds another layer to the scandal surrounding Leath’s use of university planes for a mix of official duties and personal business.
Seven months after obtaining an instrument rating to fly the school’s Cirrus SR22 plane, Leath damaged the plane in a rough landing while returning from a vacation in North Carolina in July 2015. Leath has blamed windy conditions, but the FAA required him to undergo a reexamination of his flight skills. Leath passed and kept his certification.
Leath vowed last month to stop flying the plane, which was purchased with private donations for $498,000 in 2014, after The Associated Press revealed the accident. He also donated $15,000 to the university’s foundation to cover the damage and related costs.
On Wednesday, Leath said that he regretted mixing personal and business trips on both university planes and would be more careful in the future.
Kurtenbach offered to help Leath complete his flight training in fall 2014, after ISU Provost Jonathan Wickert had started talks to recruit Kurbenbach for the CIO opening, Leath said. Leath said the CIO position didn’t report to him at the time and that he wasn’t involved in hiring Kurtenbach, who was working for an Ames-based company.
Leath said the timing worked well because the two were able to train during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks before Kurtenbach started his job Jan. 1, 2015. Leath said he took his final lesson from Kurtenbach days later, and was granted a new certification from the Federal Aviation Administration that month.
It wasn’t clear whether Leath paid for the lessons, which typically cost $35 per hour for the instructor plus plane rental. A university spokeswoman said she would look into the question Friday afternoon.
University policy prohibits employees from accepting anything of value from anyone seeking to do business with the state or who has interests that may be “substantially and materially affected” by their performance of duties.
Leath moved Kurtenbach into the position permanently on July 1 of this year — at a salary of $252,794. The Iowa Board of Regents approved the appointment of Kurtenbach, who now reports to Leath after an administrative restructuring.
Dating back to Sept. 25, Leath and his aides hadn’t responded to AP inquiries about Kurtenbach’s role in his flight training. Kurtenbach, a former co-chairman of the Iowa Republican Party who served in the Iowa House of Representatives from 2003 to 2007, also hasn’t returned messages.
Kurtenbach had worked at Iowa State as an accounting professor since 1991, and served as associate engineering dean from 2010 until 2013.
In announcing Kurtenbach’s appointment, Wickert said that it made sense to appoint an interim leader with institutional knowledge rather than conduct the planned search because the school was looking to save money in information technology.