Iowa prosecutor dropped inquiry on Iowa State leader's plane
Updated 6:00 pm, Wednesday, October 19, 2016
IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A state prosecutor dropped an inquiry into Iowa State University President Steven Leath's damage of a school airplane after the Iowa Board of Regents' top lawyer contacted the attorney general's office about the probe, state officials confirmed Wednesday.
Prosecutor Rob Sand, who has pursued white-collar crime and misconduct by public officials, sought and obtained public records about Leath's plane accident after it was revealed last month. But his inquiry was ended within days when leaders of the Board of Regents learned about it and had the board's lawyer contact Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller's office, where Sand is an assistant attorney general.
Sand's supervisors were unaware he was looking into the matter and felt it was inappropriate because police, not prosecutors, generally conduct criminal investigations, said attorney general's office spokesman Geoff Greenwood. In addition, the office doesn't have jurisdiction to bring charges unless a case is referred by a county prosecutor, which hasn't happened, he said.
The information that Sand gathered was forwarded to Story County Attorney Jessica Reynolds, who said Wednesday she didn't see any reason to investigate further. Sand didn't return messages seeking comment.
Sand began his inquiry Sept. 23. That's the same day The Associated Press reported that Leath, a pilot, was flying home from an 11-day vacation at his home in North Carolina when he suffered a hard landing at the airport in Bloomington, Illinois.
Under Iowa law, any public official who uses state-owned equipment for private purposes is guilty of a crime. Leath has denied any violations, noting that he reimbursed Iowa State for some costs associated with four flights to North Carolina that had significant personal components to them. He has said that every trip had business justification, such as a 4-hour meeting with a potential donor during vacation.
Sand requested documents related to the accident from the Central Illinois Regional Airport and received them days later. The landing damaged both wings, causing $14,000 in repairs that was paid by Iowa State.
Iowa State spokesman John McCarroll learned of Sand's inquiry from an airport official Sept. 29, after he made his own records request.
Leaders of the Board of Regents, who govern Iowa State and have supported Leath, learned of Sand's inquiry later that evening, according to a board statement issued Wednesday. The board's counsel, Aimee Claeys, the next morning contacted the attorney general's office — which, in addition to prosecuting criminals, also defends the regents and the universities.
Claeys learned that Sand had made the inquiry "without notifying anyone else" and that the information obtained would be forwarded to the local prosecutor.
Reynolds, the Story County prosecutor who took office earlier this month, said she received a call from Sand's boss, assistant attorney general Scott Brown, to pass along the records. She said that Brown informed her he had no evidence that a crime was committed but had heard rumors of plane misuse by Leath.
"I'm happy to review it, which I did. But I don't have any facts in front of me to refer to a law enforcement agency" for investigation, Reynolds said.
The dropped inquiry comes as regents' leaders face criticism that they are protecting Leath amid growing questions about his use of university planes and shirking their oversight role. The board has opened its own review, which regents are expected to discuss Thursday.
In an Oct. 9 email, Regent Subhash Sahai told Board President Bruce Rastetter and President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland that their silence on Leath's potential misuse of university planes "is deafening." Sahai has complained that he and other regents were never told about Leath's accident before they voted to extend his contract last year.
Leath has said that he eventually told Rastetter, who didn't share the information with other regents.
"President Leath cannot just say 'I told the President of Regents' and be absolved of his responsibility," Sahai wrote. "I feel some type of further inquiry and investigation is a must. We are being perceived as neglectful of our obligations."