Special Reports

Blue Grass Airport Board chairman defies council's request to step aside

Blue Grass Airport Board Chairman Bernard Lovely is ignoring the Urban County Council's unanimous request that he immediately step down as chairman and remove himself from airport activity.

The council had asked Lovely on Tuesday to suspend his involvement with the airport pending the completion of a review of airport expenses by state Auditor Crit Luallen.

Their request came a day after Lovely revealed that three airport employees, including former airport Executive Director Michael Gobb, charged $4,500 at a Texas strip club to an airport credit card.

Lovely was responsible for the oversight of Gobb, who resigned last week.

Vice Mayor Jim Gray called Lovely's decision to continue his involvement with the airport "an act of defiance toward the elected representatives of the people."

"It's very unfortunate, and it's harmful to both the investigation and the institution," Gray said. "... This board was responsible for the airport's oversight and there's clearly enough evidence today to point to a lack of effective oversight. To pretend otherwise is insulting to the collective intelligence of this community."

Meanwhile, the airport board's outside legal counsel has hired a Washington D.C. public relations firm that often specializes in crisis management to speak for Lovely and the airport, which already has two spokespeople on staff.

Lovely "feels like he's the one conducting a lot of oversight now," said David Wescott, a vice president of APCO Worldwide and the new spokesman for Blue Grass Airport. "It's unfortunate that when he steps up in oversight to reveal the details he did, he is now asked to step aside."

Instead of ending his term as chairman early, Lovely's term will end as scheduled Tuesday when the airport board elects new officers. Lovely has been chairman for three years and has a year and a half left on his term as a member of the board.

Once Lovely steps down as board chair, "he's going to support the chair and collaborate with other members of the board and do as he's asked," Wescott said. "Whether that's a hands-on day-to-day thing or something else, it's up to the board to determine."

In the meantime, the airport's internal investigation that was initiated by Lovely and is being conducted by Thomas Halbleib, the airport's attorney, will continue, Wescott said.

Halbleib will continue to report his findings to Lovely through Tuesday. After that, he will report to the new board chairman, Wescott said.

The council's request that Lovely refrain from any involvement with the board or airport pending the results of the audit was just one of a set of recommendations.

The council also asked the airport board to suspend approval of non-essential out-of-state travel by airport staff and board members until the audit is completed.

The council's recommendations still require two official council readings for final approval. That could come Thursday. Still, the airport board is not obligated to follow the council's recommendations.

The board will discuss the council's recommendations at Tuesday's meeting, said James Boyd, the board's vice chairman.

Boyd supports Lovely's continued involvement with the board after he steps down as chairman.

"Bernie's institutional knowledge is essential for the transition period ...," Boyd said. "We had an unfortunate situation with the managing director and to just cut Bernie out cold is a loss."

Lovely's internal investigation turned up the $4,500 that was charged on an airport credit card for an evening at a Texas strip club, Boyd said. "We're out there investigating it."

The council is within its right to be concerned about the expense issues that have come up, said board member Richard Hopgood. "We clearly have to make some changes with the way expenses have been handled in the past."

Still, Hopgood said Lovely should make his own decision about remaining involved on the board.

"He would be one member out of nine and wouldn't be in an officer's position ... He's going to do his duty as we all will in managing this issue," Hopgood said.

Luallen began looking into the airport's finances and expenses at the request of the council after a Herald-Leader report published in November raised questions about Gobb spending more than $200,000 on travel and expenses in a little more than two years.