The future of Blue Grass Airport Executive Director Michael Gobb is in doubt after his indefinite suspension with pay while his expenses are reviewed. Airport Board Chairman Bernard Lovely informed the airport staff Tuesday morning of the decision to suspend Gobb.
"I'm very disappointed that we had to take this step in respect to Mike," Lovely said. "He has done much for the airport and this community. .... But there have been recent media and other reports that have raised questions about Mike's conduct" regarding travel expenses.
On Nov. 23, the Herald-Leader published articles documenting that Gobb spent more than $200,000 for trips and other expenses from January 2006 through March 2008. A survey of the travel and training expenses of top officials at airports with passenger counts similar to that of Blue Grass showed that Gobb's expenses outstrip all of them.
Gobb, reached Tuesday morning, said there was little he would say publicly, on the advice of his lawyer.
"I appreciate the ongoing support of the airport board and the community leadership as we work to ensure a transparent review of airport policies and practices," he said.
Gobb, who was notified Friday of the board's decision, described the suspension as "an administrative leave for an indefinite period."
Lovely said the board hasn't scheduled additional meetings to deal with Gobb's future. But he and other board members said it's possible that the airport and its director for the last 10 years could part ways soon.
"I see that as one possibility," Lovely said.
Lovely, along with other board members, initially defended Gobb's spending. As chairman of the board, Lovely approved Gobb's expenses and said they were justified.
"What I'm telling you is all those expenses go to the benefit of this airport," Lovely said in an interview before the newspaper's initial articles.
Lovely also said at the time he had kept regular tabs on Gobb's expenditures and was satisfied that they were proper.
Tuesday, Lovely declined to discuss what specifically prompted the board to place Gobb on indefinite leave a month after the Herald-Leader published the stories. He said Gobb would remain on paid leave until the completion of a recently launched state audit and an internal financial review by an outside consultant the board plans to hire.
"It is our feeling that these reviews will be better done with Mike out of the office on leave," Lovely said.
A question of signing off
Lovely, who was responsible for signing off on Gobb's credit-card statements and travel expenses, is not recusing himself as chairman during the reviews.
"Let me put it this way," said J. Robert Owens, airport board member and treasurer, "Bernie is not part of the problem. I think that will become evident over time as the results of the reviews come out."
Another board member, Dr. David Stevens, said only that further review by the board "showed some activities that the board was not pleased with."
"I'm not sure we have defined procedures, and that was one of the problems with this whole business," he said.
Lovely stopped short of saying Gobb broke any rules.
"I think the failure to follow the policies and procedures in place at the airport are a concern for me," Lovely said. "When those aren't followed we can have problems. The policies and procedures are set up for reasons."
Lovely might not have seen all of Gobb's expenses, according to e-mails the airport board provided to the Herald-Leader as a partial response to the newspaper's open-records request.
The "question is how my initials got on all the statements. I did not see more than eight the entire time and probably not that many," wrote Lovely, who has been chairman since January 2006, to Gobb in a Nov. 30 e-mail message.
"That is something we will need to talk about," Gobb responded Dec. 1. "It was my understanding many were processed to avoid the late fee and the detail was routed to you."
Gobb added in the message that he sometimes delivered the statements to Lovely in person but that others "should have been" among monthly papers that required Lovely's approval. Gobb underlined the word "should."
Lovely told the Herald-Leader that the e-mail exchange "speaks for itself." He wouldn't comment on whether he suspected his initials on some statements had been signed by someone else.
"I reviewed every statement that was given to me," he said.
Kentucky state Auditor Crit Luallen declined to comment on Gobb's suspension. Luallen's office began investigating the airport's finances this month after a request by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council. Blue Grass Airport is a public, non-profit corporation run by a board appointed by Lexington's mayor. It is considered a component of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government.
Lexington Vice Mayor Jim Gray said Tuesday the move to suspend Gobb represents an "about-face" from the airport board members' initial responses.
"It is clear this review would not have happened without the newspaper's investigative work, the council's encouragement of the independent operations audit, and the auditor's decision to review these issues over the protests of city officials and the chairman of the airport board," Gray said.
While Gray helped lead the charge for the council to request the audit, Mayor Jim Newberry has staunchly defended the board.
In a Dec. 4 letter to Gray, Newberry wrote that rather than asking for an audit, "the better course of action would have been to allow the airport board to address the issues first."
On Tuesday, Newberry again issued a statement professing "great confidence in the ability of (airport board) members to effectively address whatever issues may arise."
Stevens, who also is retiring from the Lexington council, said he thinks the controversy "will be resolved fairly quickly," potentially with Gobb's resignation.
"That's certainly one thing that could happen," said Stevens.
Owens, the board treasurer, said "all options are on the table."
"He might decide to resign, I don't know," he said. "We need to let these investigations run their course and get all the facts on the table."
In the meantime, the airport will run without an executive director. It did so this summer while Gobb, 46, went on medical leave for five weeks.
Lovely said department heads will report directly to him during Gobb's suspension and he doesn't expect any changes in service.
The $200,000 worth of travel expenses Gobb incurred over 26 months were in addition to his nearly $220,000 a-year salary, plus benefits that include unrestricted use of an airport SUV, unlimited gas, home Internet and cell-phone service costing more than $6,000 a year, and club memberships worth thousands of dollars.