by Max Brantley
Leslie Newell Peacock continues her reporting on Little Rock National Airport this week.
There's a mountain of stuff to be reviewed at a $27 million operation. You'd think they were spending their own money, given the size of the salaries and the perks (expensive SUVs for the two top men and nearly unlimited free meals.)
Here's the news this week. The airport's top leaders, director Ron Mathieu and deputy Bryan Malinowski have Amex cards that they know how to use. In 12 months, they put $90,000 on their personal Amex cards. Together with other top officials — and Mathieu and Malinowski leading the charge — Visa card charges added up to $270,000 in credit card spending in 12 months. Mathieu and Malinowski charges totaled more than $120,000, or $5,000 per month per man.
It went for a ton of travel — first class whenever the flight was more than four hours, per airport policy — for them and several airport commissioners to places like Hawaii, Brussels, Paris and domestic points in between. The number of meals picked up for airport employees and commissioners — in town and while traveling — was enormous and some of them were biggies, such as a $1,000-plus feed for commissioners in Vegas.
We didn't have room for many specifics. But we did focus on one first-class trip, with luxury hotel and fine Parisian dining when the airport officials took Mayor Mark Stodola on their credit card to France to meet with Dassault Falcon officials. Stodola didn't report the luxury travel on his financial disclosure statement because, he said, it came from a government source. He thereby opened a whole new gray area of ethics law that needs addressing. If a public official need not disclose government payments from a government for which he doesn't work, he's free to secretly take comps from Saudi Arabia, China or whoever without reporting it. An even sharper stick in the eye is that the Little Rock National Airport used public dollars to pay for a $200-per-person feed in Paris for Jay Chesshir, president of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, which already gets $200,000 in taxpayer subsidy from the city. Stodola did say the Chamber paid $175 for him on the Paris trip. Stodola didn't know, and doesn't seem to care, if that money came from taxpayer money. Chesshir refuses to disclose how he spends his city welfare check, though the city contract nominally requires it.
You'll see the bill on the jump. Note that it is in euros. The exchange rate put the four-person tab over $800.
Please note: The credit card charges have not all been explained fully. We haven't found why several thousand was spent at a sporting goods store and gun shop. We haven't determined how the airport was able to contribute $5,000 to a private charitable organization supporting UAMS. And, most of all, we haven't yet reviewed all direct expenditures by the airport (not credit card charges). You'll remember Mathieu has $50,000 in spending discretion. If the credit card charges are any indication, there's more yet to be learned from direct expenditures.
Please also note: A larger airport in the capital of New York says its travel is nothing like Little Rock's.
The Airport isn't subject to audit except by an accountant it hires. Internal bucks stop at Mathieu's desk and his judgment, in spending $40,000 on his kid's private church school, hasn't been sparkling. The commission has promised a financial review. Given how many of them have been recipients of publicly financed favors, it will be interesting to see what kind of whip gets cracked. Meanwhile, bon appetit.