3 top managers quit; interim chief named

New board chairman is also selected

jhewlett@herald-leader.comJanuary 14, 2009 

A leadership upheaval continued at Blue Grass Airport Tuesday as three top managers resigned, a new board chairman was named and an interim director took charge.

The three directors resigned just days after the Herald-Leader reported that they had charged items ranging from electronic toys to Hannah Montana concert tickets to their airport credit cards. The house-cleaning came on the heels of the Jan. 2 resignation of Michael A. Gobb, the airport's executive director. He quit after revelations of inappropriate and excessive credit-card charges.

Gobb and his four lieutenants spent well over half a million dollars in three years on travel and other expenditures — all charged to the airport, according to a Herald-Leader review of thousands of pages of documents.

Investigations into airport finances are being conducted by the state auditor and the airport board.

The resignations of the three directors — John Coon, director of operations; John Rhodes, finance and administration director; and John Slone, director of development and planning — were announced after the board went into a closed session lasting nearly three hours to discuss disciplining or firing personnel.

The board also selected J. Robert Owens as its chairman at the morning meeting and, by lunchtime, rank-and-file airport employees were told that a new interim director, Alfred Testa Jr., will oversee the facility.

Testa, who described himself as a "problem-solver," said his orders are "to run this airport" until a permanent executive director is hired.

He previously served as director of aviation for the Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority, which runs Harrisburg International Airport in Pennsylvania. Before that, he was airport director at Manchester Airport in New Hampshire and held a similar position with Philadelphia International Airport.

According to one news account, he is a no-nonsense, hands-on leader who is known for dealing with the smallest details of airport projects.

Candidates interviewed

Meanwhile, airport board members have interviewed candidates for the airport's management team, including the executive director position, according to an airport spokesman. "It's clear the board has lost confidence in the ability of certain members of the management staff to conduct the business of the airport with credibility and integrity," said Owens, the new chairman. "So we have accepted the immediate resignations of John Coon, John Slone and John Rhodes."

State Auditor Crit Luallen, whose office is investigating airport expenses, said Tuesday's action was "entirely appropriate in light of the situation."

Last week she said she had notified state and federal law enforcement agencies about the possibility of criminal conduct at the airport.

She said auditors in her office have interviewed Coon, Slone and Rhodes, but follow-up interviews with them might be necessary, especially in light of a Herald-Leader report on Sunday about their spending.

At the request of Lexington Vice Mayor Jim Gray, the Urban County Council on Tuesday unanimously gave tentative approval to a resolution asking Luallen to report to the council about the findings of the completed airport audit. It is unclear when the audit will be completed, but Luallen said last week it would be "weeks, not months."

Final approval of the council's resolution could come Feb. 12.

Luallen's spokesman said that Luallen will meet with the council when she is done.

Newberry commends board

Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry commended the board. "The public should know that the volunteers who make up the airport board are doing their job responsibly, deliberately and in the most transparent manner possible," he said.

After Tuesday's board meeting, Owens and Testa met with groups of airport employees.

"We are committed to building an open, honest and intimidation-free environment for our employees," Owens said in a statement issued later in the day.

The consulting firm will help the airport board review employee compensation packages to make sure they are appropriate and will help the board develop internal controls and expense review policies.

"We're going to insist on more transparency from airport employees, and institute a code of conduct," Owens said.

The airport board has already moved to cancel airport credit cards that were held by top managers and support staff.

Coon, Slone and Rhodes will not get a severance package, David Wescott, an outside spokesman hired by the airport's legal counsel, said.

More departures unlikely

Owens indicated he did not anticipate any more departures, but did not rule them out.

Owens was selected unanimously as the board's new chairman, replacing Bernard Lovely, whose tenure as chairman was over. Lovely will remain on the board; his term runs until 2010.

Lovely was applauded by his colleagues on the board and others who attended the meeting.

Owens said that Lovely, as board chairman, was at his leadership best in the aftermath of the crash of Comair 5191 in August 2006.

A certified public accountant, Owens is area president and chief executive officer of RPS/Equity Group. He also is a licensed pilot.

The airport board decided to keep James Boyd as vice chairman and P.G. Peeples as secretary. Board member Richard Hopgood was named to replace Owens as board treasurer.

"It's a new day; it's a new day at Blue Grass Airport," Wescott said.

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