Special Reports

Airport director Mike Gobb resigns | Published 1/3/09

Michael Gobb, executive director of Blue Grass Airport for the last decade, resigned Friday morning at a special meeting of the airport board that had been called to discuss whether he should be disciplined or fired. Meanwhile, airport board chairman Bernard Lovely confirmed that new questions about Gobb’s expenses have arisen, specifically whether he used other airport officials’ credit cards for his own expenditures and whether those expenses were for the airport.

Gobb’s resignation is effective immediately.

The board suspended Gobb with pay last month after articles in the Herald-Leader showed that he had spent more than $200,000 for travel, some to foreign cities, and other expenses in a span of a little more than two years.

The expenses were in addition to Gobb’s salary of nearly $220,000 a year, plus extensive benefits that included a car, gas and other perks.

A Herald-Leader survey of the travel and training expenses of top officials at airports with passenger counts similar to that of Blue Grass found that Gobb’s expenses exceeded all of them.

Lovely, who vigorously defended Gobb after the November newspaper articles, said his attitude about Gobb changed as a result of an internal review of airport policies and procedures.

The review, done primarily by Lovely and airport board attorney Thomas Halbleib, showed that Gobb made charges on airport credit cards of other airport staff members, Lovely said.

Some of those charges “did not, on their face, appear to be airport charges,” he said.

Following a recent open records request, the Herald-Leader obtained credit-card billing statements and related records of airport staffers’ credit cards. Some of those documents indicate that Gobb ordered items using others’ credit cards. One example is an order for more than $700 worth of DVDs billed to the credit card of John Coon, director of airport operations.Reached later in the day, Gobb said no one had questioned him about such charges.

“I never had a question from Bernie or the board on the issues you’re raising,” Gobb said. “This is the first I’m hearing it.”

He said charges for DVDs were for the airport employees’ library.

No severance

Gobb, dressed in a dark suit and tie, read his resignation letter calmly and left immediately.

The 50-seat boardroom, usually full at board meetings, was nearly empty except for the board members.

“This is a meeting I didn’t expect to have with you, particularly under these circumstances,” Gobb said before reading the letter.

“My family and I are proud to call Lexington our home and even more proud of the condition of the airport as I leave,” he read.Lovely gave Gobb credit for the accomplishments of his tenure. “This airport has been very successful over the last 10 years due to your efforts,” Lovely said.

Gobb had recently hired an attorney to represent him and to negotiate a severance agreement with the airport.

However, Lovely said Friday that Gobb was not offered a severance package and he did not expect there to be further discussion of one.

Reviewing procedures

Lovely said he is taking a larger role in the day-to-day operations of the airport, which is being run by its management team.

“I’m attending staff meetings that I really didn’t attend before,” he said.

The search for a new executive director will begin quickly, he said. The search will be conducted either by a search committee or by the board’s internal-affairs committee.

The board will meet on Jan. 13 to discuss the logistics of that search.

The board also is hiring a consultant to review management and compensation policies at the airport.

Several board members had a conference call on Wednesday with Nick Davidson, an aviation specialist with Jacobs Consultancy. During that call, Davidson was told about the current situation at the airport, coverage by the media and the construction goals for the airport before the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington.

Davidson will meet with board members on Jan. 13.

The matters a consultant might help the board with include:

■ Developing internal control policies and procedures;

■ Looking at compensation data for top officials at similar airports;

■ Developing appropriate financial control and oversight;

■ Providing an ethics policy for senior executives;

■ Defining policies for eligible expenses and their review.

Following the Herald-Leader stories, the Urban County Council approved a resolution from Vice Mayor Jim Gray to ask state Auditor Crit Luallen examine the airport’s finances. That audit is now under way.

Gray said Friday that Gobb’s resignation “points to the urgent need to find an interim airport manager who’s experienced and fully independent, someone who can ensure safe and efficient operations and assist the state auditor in reviewing this problem.”

Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry, who has the power to appoint board members, has taken the position that the oversight of airport issues is up to its board.

“I have consistently stated my belief that the board members would satisfactorily address management issues as they arise,” Newberry said in a statement. “That has happened, and I am confident that the board will continue to provide the leadership necessary for the airport to effectively serve Lexington.”

Going to Hawaii

One of the trips highlighted in the Herald-Leader’s coverage was an annual trip to Hawaii that several airport representatives, including Gobb, take.

The meeting is sponsored by the American Association of Airport Executives and is attended by members of Congress and aviation executives. Five Blue Grass Airport representatives, including Gobb, Lovely and James Boyd, vice chairman of the airport board, attended the conference last year. The cost was more than $26,000.

Lovely said that Coon and director of planning and development John Slone will be attending the meeting later this month. Boyd might also go, he said.

Gobb said he bought his own airline ticket to Hawaii on Wednesday. A ticket had previously been purchased for him by the airport for $1,900. Gobb is a member of the AAAE’s board of directors.

Gobb, 46, came to Blue Grass Airport 10 years ago from Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn.He said Friday that he was searching for a new job.

“My future may be in aviation,” Gobb said. “It may be in a completely different business that keeps me here in Lexington.“I do anticipate continuing to work with the state auditors through this process,” he added. “My stepping back will allow the audit process to take place and allow the talented (airport) management team to get back to the business of running the airport.”

What’s next?

■ State Auditor Crit Luallen is conducting an audit of Blue Grass Airport.

■ An internal review is being carried out by airport board chairman Bernard Lovely and airport attorney Thomas Halbleib.

■ The airport board of directors is considering hiring a transportation consultant and will meet with one on Jan. 13. The consultant would advise them on internal policies and procedures involving financial controls, employee ethics and expenses.

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