Criminal investigation at airport

Full cooperation promised

jhewlett@herald-leader.comJanuary 17, 2009 

The Kentucky attorney general's office has contacted Blue Grass Airport officials and informed them of an ongoing criminal investigation related to "the practices of staff at the airport," airport officials said Friday.

"We have been informed that we have a criminal investigation," airport board chairman J. Robert Owens said. "It is our intent to fully cooperate."

David Wescott, a spokesman hired by the airport board's attorney, said several agencies could be involved in the probe, but he was not aware of which might be involved. Allison Martin, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said it was that office's policy not to confirm or deny an investigation.

"What we can say on the record is that our office was referred this case by the auditor's office," she said.

The criminal investigation comes while Kentucky state auditor Crit Luallen's office is conducting an audit of the airport. She had already put law enforcement agencies on notice of possible criminal wrongdoing at the airport. She meets regularly with those agencies, but her office does not officially refer cases to them until audits are complete.

"If one of those law enforcement agencies decides to move forward with it, that's their decision," said Terry Sebastian, a spokesman for the auditor's office.

"This is a lesson that other lay boards need to learn from," Owens said of the investigation. "Lay boards put their trust in management. As facts can be released, I hope the community can learn from our experience."

The criminal investigation is the latest development in an ongoing scandal at the airport.

Airport executive director Michael A. Gobb resigned from his post on Jan. 2 during an airport board meeting called to decide whether to discipline or fire him.

The resignation came after Herald-Leader articles revealed that he had spent more than $200,000 of the airport's money on travel and other expenses in less than two and a half years.

Earlier this week, three of the four directors who worked under Gobb also resigned amid questions about their spending of airport money.

The three, John Rhodes, John Coon and John Slone, along with the airport's director of marketing and community relations, spent at least $332,000 on their airport-issued credit cards in three years.

Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry said he welcomes the investigation. "If a crime was committed, it should be punished," he said.

The airport is currently being run by acting executive director Alfred Testa Jr., who said Friday that this is the first time he has come into an airport job where a criminal investigation is going on.

He said his overriding priority is to keep the airport running smoothly and efficiently and its construction projects on course.

The Hawaii ticket

Gobb's attorney, William Rambicure, said late Friday that he had not heard about the criminal investigation, but that he wasn't particularly surprised by the news.

Rambicure is not a criminal lawyer and said he would have to talk with Gobb about the matter when Gobb returns from a trip to Hawaii. "If he is a target of the criminal investigation," he should have a criminal lawyer, he said.

Rambicure also said Gobb assumed he was flying to Hawaii on a ticket he had purchased himself when he left Lexington on Jan. 4. He was referring to an article in Friday's Herald-Leader about Gobb using a $1,900 plane ticket to Hawaii after his resignation when he was told not to by airport officials. The ticket had been purchased by the airport before Gobb resigned.

Rambicure said that when Gobb found out that airport officials were canceling the ticket the airport had paid for, he bought his own. (Wescott told the Herald-Leader on Thursday that airport officials had tried to cancel the airport's ticket, but were unsuccessful.)

Gobb went to Hawaii to attend a conference held by the American Association of Airport Executives. He is a member of its board.

Rambicure said it was his understanding that Gobb contacted Delta Air Lines about upgrading a coach-class ticket he purchased for himself. When he got to the ticket counter at the Lexington airport, he was given a boarding pass for a business-class seat and assumed the ticket he purchased had been upgraded.

Rambicure said the airport's attorney told him Wednesday that Gobb had used the airport's ticket and called the situation "a screwy deal ... not the first and only screwy deal in all of this."

"He understood and believed that he was flying out on his ticket," he said.

"I can't speak to what Mike Gobb did at a ticket booth," Wescott said. "We told him we didn't want him using the ticket. The ticket was used, and we've asked him for reimbursement."

Watch for updates at kentucky.com

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