Special Reports

More airport expenses questioned

Three months after a spending scandal erupted at Blue Grass Airport, former employees have reimbursed the airport for thousands of dollars in expenses and returned shotguns, computers and other items.

But as airport officials sift through thousands of pages of documents, they are still discovering expenditures they didn't know about and are trying to assess whether they were legitimate business expenses.

On Wednesday, state Auditor Crit Luallen will release her findings regarding airport finances — and whether she thinks some expenses were inappropriate, or even illegal. Separately, a criminal investigation is continuing.

Whatever her findings, airport board Chairman J. Robert Owens said he is determined that the airport will get back what it is owed.

"The airport board has paid for a number of items for which it should never have been charged," he said in a report issued Friday.

"I want to get every dime that we're owed. I promise you about that," he said earlier in the week.

Airport employees were told to begin assembling their expenses in early 2008, airport spokesman David Wescott said. That followed a Herald-Leader request for expense records of Michael A. Gobb, then the airport's executive director.

Gobb resigned rather than risk being fired after several articles appeared about his expenditure of airport money — well over $200,000 in just over two years.

Other articles revealed that four directors working for Gobb spent more than $332,000 on their airport credit cards in three years. Three of the four — John Coon, John Rhodes and John Slone — also resigned.

Rhodes, former director of administration and finance, began reimbursing the airport as early as June 2008 for charges made on his airport credit card in 2002. He has repaid more than $11,000 for plane tickets he purchased that were used by people not employed by the airport, and for things such as meals and clothing, records show.

Coon and Slone have reimbursed the airport for part of a Texas strip-club jaunt they took in 2004 with Gobb that cost more than $5,000. Slone paid the airport $2,280 last month, and Coon paid $1,106 earlier this month, Wescott said.

In addition, Gobb has repaid the airport for using a $1,900 airport-purchased plane ticket to Hawaii in January, after he resigned from his job.

Airport attorney Thomas Halbleib and his office are continuing to sift through thousands of pages of documents to determine just how much money is owed the airport and what other merchandise should be returned.

The work has been so challenging that they only recently discovered documents that should have been provided to the Herald-Leader in response to an April request the newspaper made under the records law.

Those documents involve exchanges for foreign currency Gobb made using airport money. He exchanged more than $5,000 for British pounds, Czech korunas, Euros, Russian rubles and Croatian kunas. Wescott said airport officials have not determined how that money was spent.

Airport officials also recently found documents showing that the airport paid more than $8,800 for a consultant's trip to Croatia in October 2006 for a professional conference that Gobb attended. The consultant, Frank Newton III of Newton & Associates in Charlotte, N.C., wrote a 39-page report titled "Financial Aspects of Public Airports in the United States of America," which Gobb apparently used in preparing for a presentation at the conference.

The Herald-Leader was told by airport officials and Newton & Associates that the consultant had not charged for the report, but was not told that Newton attended the conference and spent even more airport money on the trip than Gobb did.

Newton was out of town and did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Wescott referred questions about the Croatia trip to Gobb.

"I think you have to ask Mike Gobb if this is unusual," Wescott said. "He made the trip and he worked with consultants on this project."

Gobb has not returned recent phone calls requesting comment.

The job of sorting out who spent what apparently has been complicated by the fact that Gobb made purchases on other airport employees' credit cards.

Airport officials have maintained and records indicate that Gobb not only charged many thousands of dollars on his own airport credit card, but he directed other airport employees to make purchases for him on theirs. These purchases included DVDs, a telephoto camera lens and tickets to a Hannah Montana concert.

An e-mail from Gobb to airport administration manager Debbie Kelly on April 4, 2008, asked her to order six electronic cigar humidifiers that cost $139 each. The charge appeared on a billing statement for Kelly's airport credit card.

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