AMES, Iowa — Iowa State University is trying to shield the names of nearly two dozen people who have flown on a school airplane with President Steven Leath, including his self-described best friend and “hunting buddy,” a National Rifle Association Board member and an infamous athletics booster.
The university last week released records showing flights that Leath took in the last 2 ½ years on its King Air but redacted the names of passengers who joined him on several trips.
The Associated Press obtained passengers’ names from flight billing records that had been available on a university website and were removed last month. Iowa State said the records were inadvertently posted and contained confidential donor information — even though they didn’t indicate whether passengers had given to ISU.
The university said their names were redacted — despite Leath’s vow to be “super open” about his travel — because the Iowa open records law exempts documents that identify donors or prospective donors from disclosure. That rationale drew criticism from the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, whose director Randy Evans said the redactions make it impossible to judge the legitimacy of Leath’s flights.
“The university, in effect, believes that the name of anyone who flies with President Leath can be confidential because those people may someday make a donation to the university,” Evans said.
The Board of Regents this week is expected to discuss Leath’s use of school planes, which has come in question after the AP revealed he damaged one in a hard landing last year while he was piloting. Since then, he has acknowledged using them for a mix of official and personal business, vowed to stop flying himself, and donated $17,500 to cover accident costs that had been paid by ISU. He has said it was a mistake to fly relatives to a 2014 NCAA tournament game.
Many of those whose identities the school is shielding have ties to hunting, which is among Leath’s favorite hobbies. Leath has defended his travel and hunting outings as critical to fundraising.
“President Leath’s use of university aircraft as well as his sharing of his personal interests and engaging the interests of current and prospective donors has proven to be tremendously beneficial to the university,” Leath aide Megan Landolt said.
The passengers include:
— Bill Dougherty, who traveled with him twice to Wyoming, where ISU has a geology field camp near the Big Horn Mountains, a popular destination for hunting enthusiasts. The university said the trips — both in September 2015 — also involved donor meetings. At his 2012 installation ceremony as president, Leath called Dougherty — a former leading plant researcher who worked with Leath in North Carolina — “my best friend, former colleague, hunting buddy and 25-year sounding board.”
Landolt said that Dougherty has provided Leath with “keen insight and advice,” particularly about how to increase Iowa State’s research funding.
— NRA board member Pete Brownell, chief executive officer of Brownells Inc., a gun accessories supplier in Grinnell, Iowa. An ISU plane picked up Brownell in September 2014 in Grinnell, and he joined Leath and Ames real estate agent Dean Hunziker on a trip to Indiana. A company spokesman said Brownell was unavailable for comment. Landolt said Brownell’s company is working with ISU on “internship recruitment and fundraising” initiatives.
Hunziker, whose name is redacted, said the group met in Indiana with wealthy businessman Steve Hageman about university business before having a barbecue and shooting doves. He said the outing included Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the Republican vice presidential nominee. Hunziker and his wife also joined Leath on a four-day trip last year to meet with Hageman, where a group shot ducks at Hageman’s hunting lodge in Texas.
— Professional bowhunter John Dudley and his wife, Sharon, who went along on that trip. Dudley has joined Leath on other trips to North Carolina and Kentucky. The university says Dudley, a hunting instructor who hosts the “Nock On” television show, is helping Leath make contacts with potential donors.
— University booster Mel Weatherwax. The Ankeny businessman made headlines in 2013 when he yelled and charged at Kansas basketball coach Bill Self after the Jayhawks defeated the Cyclones, forcing an officer to restrain him. Despite that outburst, records show Leath traveled with Weatherwax and his wife the next month to Texas and to the 2015 NCAA tournament in Louisville.