Special Reports

Ex-airport officials return $45,372

Blue Grass Airport has recovered more than $45,000, plus merchandise worth thousands of dollars more, from former airport officials and others since the Herald-Leader began investigating the spending of airport money more than a year ago.

In a letter sent to the Herald-Leader on Monday, airport interim executive director Eric Frankl said he anticipates that the airport will receive more reimbursements.

A spending scandal uncovered by the newspaper has led to an audit by the state auditor's office, a criminal investigation and a major reorganization at the airport. The auditor's office found that seven airport officials had more than $500,000 in questionable expenditures from Jan. 1, 2006, to Dec. 31, 2008.

Of the $45,372.89 returned thus far, the highest individual amount — $21,030.18 — came from John Rhodes, the airport's former director of administration and finance.

Also included in the reimbursement total is $12,813.13 in payments or credits from travel agencies and airlines for unused plane tickets billed to the airport, according to airport officials.

Former airport executive director Michael Gobb has repaid the airport $4,818.47, according to Frankl. Airport officials have been claiming for months that Gobb owes the airport an additional $10,000, which the airport lent him in July 2008 to help pay for medical expenses.

"At this time, the airport has neither recovered nor discontinued its efforts to recover that amount," Frankl said of the $10,000 in his letter.

"That's still actively disputed," said Pat Nash, Gobb's attorney.

Gobb took a medical leave from his job from mid-July to just after Labor Day 2008. Records show that in addition to the $10,000, the airport paid for a one-way plane ticket to Tucson, Ariz., for Gobb on the same day he requested the leave. Records also show that Gobb charged $102 to his airport credit card a couple of days later at Cottonwood de Tucson, a treatment facility for a wide range of conditions.

Gobb's reimbursement total includes repayment for a $1,900 airport-purchased plane ticket to Hawaii in January that he used after he resigned from his job. According to the state auditor's office, in February Gobb repaid the airport $1,000, the amount he had been reimbursed by the airport in 2007 for partial payment for cross-training equipment.

Nash said he couldn't comment on the reimbursements and returns to the airport by Gobb because he wasn't Gobb's attorney when they were made.

According to Frankl, former airport planning and development director John Slone has repaid the airport $3,367.46; former operations director John Coon has repaid $1,106.67; former administration manager Debbie Kelly has reimbursed the airport $1,798.20; and Brian Ellestad, former director of marketing and communications and now deputy director of air service and community relations, has reimbursed the airport $438.78.

The Herald-Leader has reported some of the reimbursements previously.

All of the money repaid by Coon and $2,280 of the total repaid by Slone were for a Texas strip-club visit with Gobb in 2004, which cost the airport $5,080, according to airport officials. Airport spokeswoman Amy Caudill said Monday that the remainder of the strip-club cost has not been repaid.

Ellestad's reimbursement includes repayment for golf lessons he charged to the airport, according to Caudill.

Kelly repaid the airport the nearly $1,800 in January after it was discovered that she had been reimbursed twice for a deposit she made on holiday hams in late 2008.

Among the items that have been returned, according to Frankl, are five Wii game consoles with games and controllers; four shotguns — three Remingtons and a Benelli; computer equipment; a portable digital television; DVDs; an Alcomate breathalyzer; a blood-pressure monitor; dozens of clothing items bearing the Blue Grass Airport logo; and two tuxedos. Caudill said a total dollar amount for the returned merchandise had not been determined.

Frankl said some of the returned items will be used for airport business purposes, but most will be disposed of as surplus property.

In February, Kentucky State Auditor Crit Luallen released the results of her audit of airport expenditures. The audit found that more than 66 percent of credit card transactions by the seven top airport officials and 61 percent of direct payment and cash advance transactions involving those officials — for a total of $503,291.50 — had inadequate or no supporting documentation or had questionable business purposes.

According to the state auditor's report, Gobb was reimbursed twice for the same expense on several occasions. Questions also have arisen about whether Gobb used other airport officials' credit cards to make purchases.

Gobb, Rhodes, Coon and Slone resigned in January. Also that month, three part-time employees — one of Coon's daughters and Kelly's two sons — resigned after a review of the airport's policy on nepotism. In May, Kelly resigned because her job was being eliminated as part of the airport reorganization.

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