Special Reports

Airport security questioned

Third District Urban County Councilwoman Diane Lawless wants public safety officers at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport to be under the jurisdiction of someone other than the airport's executive director.

"I feel like they need to be under another body — state police, Lexington police," she told the Herald-Leader Friday.

Lawless expressed a similar opinion in a letter she mailed Thursday to state auditor Crit Luallen, whose office recently conducted an audit of airport expenses and found more than $500,000 in questionable expenses from January 2006 through December 2008.

"My major concern is that we still have a system where the safety officers and chief are employed by and report to the airport director," she said in her letter to Luallen.

The state auditor had not received the letter as of late Friday, according to Luallen's spokesman.

Lawless said she is concerned about an accident involving Michael Gobb, then airport executive director, in July 2008 and the airport's handling of that accident. Gobb was hauling fence posts with an airport vehicle when somehow two mailboxes on nearby private property were damaged.

Luallen's audit said that airport officials violated policies by not reporting the accident and not requiring the driver to give blood and urine samples and pay for damage.

Lawless, in the letter, said she was very concerned by the "cover-up" of the wreck.

But, she told the newspaper, "I have no reason to believe that public safety has been compromised."

In the letter, she told Luallen that in a recent conversation she had with airport board chairman J. Robert Owens about the accident, Owens told her, "It wasn't like anybody was hurt." Owens also assured her, she said, that with new whistle-blower policies, such events couldn't happen again.

"The quickest way for something like this to happen again is to believe it can't," Lawless said in the letter. She asked how whistle-blowing employees could be assured that they would be protected by the same airport board that failed to oversee and protect them in the past.

Owens said Friday that there had been no cover-up of the accident and that the new whistle-blower rules would protect employees. He also said he didn't think that airport public safety officers should be under the jurisdiction of another entity.

"They have special training to respond to aviation accidents, and I don't see where changing their supervision would increase public safety at the airport," he said.

Luallen's office began an audit of airport expenses after the Herald-Leader reported in November that Gobb had spent well over $200,000 in airport money for travel and other expenses in just over two years. More questions about the spending of airport money arose, and Gobb and three airport directors — John Coon, John Rhodes and John Slone — resigned.

Lawless had several other questions for Luallen, including whether the airport board had the legal authority to lend $10,000 to an employee and what legal authority the board has to recover the loan.

The airport board paid $10,000 for Gobb to go to an Arizona treatment facility in July 2008. Airport officials have said it was a loan.

"I think there's some dispute over that," said Patrick Nash, a criminal defense attorney hired to represent Gobb. Nash said that attorney William Rambicure has been dealing with that issue on Gobb's behalf.

Lawless also asked Luallen if the state auditor's office would take a look at newly reconstructed airport credit card bills. While looking at airport expenses, auditors in Luallen's office found that several years of Gobb's expense reimbursement forms and airport credit card statements were missing.

Lawless also asked whether there is a list of money and items that have been returned to the airport since the spending scandal broke, the names of the people who made reimbursements and returned items, and the dates of those reimbursements and returns.

Airport officials have provided some information about reimbursements and returns, but a complete listing has not been made available.

"I've read through the audit several times, and I continue to have questions," Lawless said. "I felt like addressing those to her (Luallen). I realize some of those she might not be able to answer."

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