The board of Lexington's Blue Grass Airport violated the Kentucky Open Records Act when it redacted information from a copy of a $10,000 check written in July 2008, the Kentucky Attorney General's office said.
The check, written on an airport account, was issued to help former executive director Michael Gobb with medical expenses. The check has been the subject of a dispute — with the airport board claiming it was a loan and Gobb claiming it was part of his compensation — and at the center of a public controversy for some time.
The Herald-Leader sought the opinion after receiving a copy of the check with the payee's name redacted. Airport officials maintained that payee information constituted confidential health information.
In a formal opinion issued Oct. 8, the office of Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway said the check reflects the disbursement of public funds, and that "the public's interest in disclosure outweighs Mr. Gobb's privacy interests."
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Issued July 18, 2008, just before Gobb took a medical leave from his job, the check was written on the airport board's operations division account and signed by the airport's then-administration and finance director John Rhodes and then-operations director John Coon.
"The Board asks the public to blindly accept its assertion that the funds were properly expended," the attorney general's opinion reads.
The redacted information is not '"information elicited within the relationship of a health care provider and his or her patient/client,' but is instead information identifying the provider/payee from which inferences as to the condition for which treatment was sought can be drawn," said the opinion, written by assistant attorney general Amye Bensenhaver. "In our view, payee information is less personal in nature than details of patient/client symptoms, diagnosis, and course of treatment."
Records show that Gobb charged $102 to his airport credit card at a Tucson, Ariz., area treatment facility that treats patients with a wide range of conditions, including post traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and anger management issues, a couple of days after the $10,000 check was written.
The attorney general also called "procedurally deficient" the airport board's response to a Herald-Leader request for any and all written references to the check between the airport board chairman and other board members.
The airport board told the newspaper that public records potentially responsive to that request were in storage or active use, but did eventually make available one record. The board should have included a detailed explanation of the cause for delay in producing the information requested, the attorney general's office said.
Attorney Tom Halbleib, who represents the airport board, said he received the attorney general's opinion Monday and had not had a chance to discuss the matter with "appropriate airport officials."
"Attorney General Conway's opinion will not have the force and effect of law unless 30 days pass without action by any party," Halbleib wrote in an e-mail to the Herald-Leader. He said he planned to discuss the opinion with airport officials before the end of the 30-day period and would have a response after those discussions.
Gobb, Rhodes, Coon and John Slone, the airport's planning and development director, stepped down from their jobs in January amid questions about their spending of airport money. State Auditor Crit Luallen's office found more than $500,000 in questionable expenses made by seven airport officials, including the four who resigned, from Jan. 1, 2006, to Dec. 31, 2008.
The audit came after the Herald-Leader began publishing a series of articles about airport officials' spending of airport money. A criminal investigation was begun after the state auditor's office began looking into the expenditures.
In September, the airport board authorized its chairman to enter into an agreement accepting $20,000 in reimbursements from Gobb. Representatives of Gobb indicated a willingness to repay the $10,000 for medical expenses, plus an additional $10,000. The proposed agreement was criticized by some members of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council.
"I don't believe $20,000 adequately addresses this scandal," Vice Mayor Jim Gray said after hearing of the proposed agreement.