I recently got wind from a source in Fargo about North Dakota State University’s airplane being sold. Since I’ve written extensively about the airplane – which is an expensive frivolity that ought to be an embarrassment given how often NDSU pleads poverty to state appropriators, and how the institution has exploded tuition and fee costs for students – I decided to request some information about the sale.
After all, HB1033 passed by the state legislature mandated that NDSU sell the airplane by June of 2017. I was curious to see what arrangements NDSU had made to be rid of the airplane.
So I sent an open records request to Mimi Monson at NDSU, who I usually make such requests to (Monson has apparently been assigned by the university to handle my requests specifically), asking for records of the sale or the impending sale. The response I got wasn’t from Monson but rather NDSU General Counsel Christopher Wilson.
“NDSU does not have any records responsive to your request,” he told me in response.
I was dubious, because my source was pretty clear that a deal was done or close to done.
“Does NDSU still currently own the airplane? Are there any plans to sell it?” I asked in response to Wilson’s email. In reply, I got back this whopper:
NDSU does not own an airplane. NDSU leases an airplane from the NDSU Development Foundation. Options are being actively explored for the sale of the airplane.
The problem? This is a lie. NDSU absolutely owns an airplane, and I have the data points to prove it.
According to the FAA, NDSU’s airplane is registered to NDSU at NDSU’s mailing address (click for a larger view):
This is important, because according to the Federal Aviation Regulations § 47.5, “An aircraft may be registered only by and in the legal name of its owner.”
What’s more, NDSU President Dean Bresciani certainly behaves as though his institution were the owner of the airplane. Below are emails between Bresciani and NDSU alumni/booster Steve Scheel (of the Scheels Sporting Goods stores) in which the two are negotiating a situation where Scheels would buy the plane and allow extensive use of it for NDSU.
“While the legislative requirement to sell the plane may yet dissipate for this session, I’m confident that the issue for them will never go away,” writes Bresciani to Scheel. “Given that, I continue to be very interested in finding a private party to purchase the plane with something like an 80 hour annual charter agreement for NDSU when it is not in use by the owner.”
Why is the President of NDSU trying to find a private party to buy an airplane NDSU supposedly doesn’t own?
I responded to Wilson with this:
That’s inaccurate. Per the FAA the airplane is registered to NDSU. And i have emails concerning the sale of the plane between Bresciani and Mr. Steve Scheel.
Why would the President of NDSU be negotiating the sale of a plane NDSU doesn’t own?
I would like to request all communications regarding this potential sale, as well as any documents concerning the purchase.
In reply, Wilson wrote: “We’re working on your request. We should have it to you next week.”
The official line from NDSU is that the NDSU Development Foundation, allegedly a separate entity from the university, owns the airplane and not the university. If that’s true, then the registration of the airplane breaks federal law. And it doesn’t appear to be true in practice given that NDSU President Dean Bresciani a) has the plane available at beck-and-call and b) is apparently authorized to negotiate the sale of the plane.
Which brings to light an important issue for the state’s university system. A lot of the campuses have these organizations which we’re told are separate and private and thus not subject to many of the state’s accountability laws (i.e. allowing a legislator/university employee to expense his country club membership and top-shelf booze). But are these organizations really separate and private, or just front groups allowing the universities to skirt the law and accountability?
The lesson of NDSU’s airplane is that the latter seems more true.