Ex-airport director Michael Gobb pleads guilty

Admits to 2 counts of felony theft by deception in plea bargain

jhewlett@herald-leader.comJune 19, 2010 

Michael Gobb

  • Legal status for other ex-airport officials

    John Rhodes, 56, who has pleaded guilty to one count of felony theft by deception, has received a five-year conditional discharge.

    John Coon, 48, is awaiting sentencing on a guilty plea to conspiracy to commit theft by deception, a misdemeanor.

    John Slone, 52, is awaiting sentencing on a guilty plea to conspiracy to commit theft by deception, a misdemeanor.

Michael Gobb, former executive director of Lexington's Blue Grass Airport, pleaded guilty Friday to two counts of felony theft by deception.

As part of a plea bargaining deal, prosecutors recommended Gobb receive five years in prison for each of the two charges — the maximum allowed under the law — and seven additional felony theft-by-deception charges against him be dropped. Fayette Circuit Judge Pamela Goodwine, who does not have to follow the prosecution's recommendations, set sentencing for Aug. 13.

The theft charges against Gobb relate to the expenditure of airport money. The two counts to which he pleaded guilty involve items for personal use that he purchased with his airport credit card in 2007 and 2008.

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Andrea Williams said Gobb owed approximately $41,000 in restitution to the airport, and that Gobb has paid a small portion of the total.

Gobb's attorney, Patrick Nash, asked Goodwine to schedule sentencing a couple of months after the guilty plea to give his client enough time to get all of the money together needed to make full restitution. Gobb wants to pay the full amount he owes by the time of the sentencing, Nash said.

Gobb told the judge Friday he was suffering from depression and taking anti-depressants. He said he was still living in Lexington but didn't have a job.

Gobb was flanked by friends and several family members, including his mother, as he sat in the courtroom waiting for his turn before the judge. Absent in the courtroom was Gobb's wife, Kristina.

"Here's the bottom line, he did wrong. He wants to admit it. He did admit it today. He wants to face up to it and get this thing resolved," Nash said after the court hearing.

"He does have thoughts and compassion for everybody that's involved in this, like the airport board, the city," Nash said.

"I can tell you that he's very, very sorry and he's very, very embarrassed. His life as he knew it has basically ceased to be, and he'll never get it back."

Nash said there's no question Gobb made a terrible mistake, but that he hoped that when Gobb is judged he won't be judged just on the worst thing he's ever done in his life.

"He's done a lot of good in his life," Nash said.

Gobb, 47, was indicted by a grand jury in October, along with three former airport directors who worked directly under him. The three others, former operations director John Coon, former administration and finance director John Rhodes, and former planning and development director John Slone, have also accepted plea deals and pleaded guilty to theft-related charges. Rhodes was initially charged with six counts of felony theft by deception, while Coon and Slone were initially charged with one count each of felony theft by deception.

The indictments came after the Herald-Leader began publishing a series of articles on spending at the airport, an audit by the state auditor's office and more than nine months of investigation by the state attorney general's office and the FBI.

The newspaper articles and the audit detailed the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars by airport officials on such things as overseas trips, meals at expensive restaurants, liquor and entertainment over a three-year period. Airport officials have said many of those expenditures were for legitimate purposes.

On June 11, Goodwine sentenced Rhodes, 56, to 2 1/2 years in prison on one count of felony theft by deception to which he pleaded guilty in April. However, the judge conditionally discharged him for five years.

In April, Slone, 52, and Coon, 48, pleaded guilty to one charge each of conspiracy to commit theft by deception, a misdemeanor. Prosecutors have recommended that each receive a 12-month jail sentence. Sentencing has been set for June 25.

"After months and months of review of this case, we came up with a proposed plan of dealing with each of the defendants who were the subjects of this investigation. Our recommendations, if they chose to plead guilty, reflected the culpability of each of the defendants," said Fayette Commonwealth's Attorney Ray Larson. "Coon and Slone, upon our review of the investigation, were the least culpable. Rhodes was next most culpable, and Gobb the most culpable. And our recommendations are a reflection of our perception of their culpability," Larson said.

The airport board forced Gobb, Coon, Rhodes and Slone to resign from their jobs in January 2009. Gobb was making nearly $220,000 a year when he stepped down, and the others were making salaries well into six figures.

A February 2009 report by state auditor Crit Luallen's office detailed more than $500,000 in undocumented and questionable expenses made by seven airport officials — including the four charged — from Jan. 1, 2006, through Dec. 31, 2008.

According to Luallen's office, Gobb had $152,763 in questionable or unsupported credit card charges and an additional $28,528 in questionable or unsupported expenses during the three-year period.

Prosecutors have not made public the specific details of the initial criminal charges against Gobb, Coon, Rhodes and Slone. The scope of the law enforcement agencies' investigation into airport spending also has never been made public.

One of the charges on which Gobb was indicted alleged that he directed airport employee Amy Caudill to place a charge on her airport credit card to obtain property Gobb was not entitled to have. Another charge alleged Gobb used Coon's airport credit card to purchase something for which he (Gobb) was not entitled.

One count in the indictment, which named Gobb, Coon and Slone, related to a 2004 trip the three took to a Dallas strip club. The Herald-Leader, through airport documents, found that the airport paid $5,080 for the Texas strip club visit. Coon repaid the airport more than $1,100 for the strip club visit; Slone repaid nearly $2,300, according to airport attorney Thomas Halbleib.

According to Halbleib, Rhodes, Coon and Slone had fully repaid the amounts involved in the initial criminal charges against them by early August 2009, before they were indicted.

Gobb has repaid the airport more than $4,800 for expenditures he made, plus an additional $10,000 that the airport paid on his behalf to an Arizona treatment facility in July 2008, according to the airport. Nash said that none of that money is part of the approximately $41,000 that prosecutors said Gobb owes as restitution in the criminal case against him.

Reach Jennifer Hewlett at (859) 231-3308 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3308.

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