Spurred by the Arkansas Times' investigation of Little Rock National Airport spending practices, officials have begun making reimbursements for questionable past expenses. They include expensive steak dinners for an airport commissioner's birthday, extraordinary use of expense accounts for employee lunches and, despite an initial denial, country club payments for Airport Director Ron Mathieu.
Leslie Newell Peacock reports:
Since the Arkansas Times’ first reported Nov. 12 on expenditures at the airport, including a $40,000 check to a private school for a football field, Little Rock National Airport Executive Director Ron Mathieu has reimbursed his employer $1,781.75 for charges made since August. They include a $366.88 tab at Arthur's Prime Steakhouse with Commissioner Jesse Mason; country club dues, tuxedo rental and gas. He said Friday he is still going over his charges and will be writing more checks to the airport.
Mathieu said he wrote the checks after meeting Nov. 19 with Commissioner Tom Schueck, who was asked at the Commission’s November meeting to look into airport expenditures and policy by Commission Chairman Bob East. Mathieu said and Schueck discussed upcoming policy changes, including one requiring employees to pay for their spouses’ meals. Mathieu said employees are combing through charges they’ve put on the airport’s credit cards for the year 2010 at Schueck’s request. Other reimbursements have been made by assistant director Bryan Malinowski, manager Elwin Jones and Julieta Carrasco-Meza.
So far, though, reimbursements have mostly covered expenses in the last three or four months. The airport's heavy pattern of spending — Mathieu and his chief deputy put almost $90,000 on credit cards in the last 12 months — goes back much farther.
In August, Mathieu and his wife, Yasmine, took commissioner Jesse Mason and his wife, Dr. Gail Reede Jones, to dinner at Arthur’s Prime Steakhouse to celebrate Mason’s birthday. The four dined on calamari, lump crab cocktail, filet mignons and two kinds of wine, on the airport’s tab. The airport has said previously alcohol purchases are allowed by policy only with business prospects.
Mason said he did not know the airport had paid for the meal and would not have approved it had he known. He said he believed it was only appropriate for the airport to pick up the tab for employees and commissioners “if we were on a trip, at a conference.”
Mathieu, who earlier told a reporter than the airport had not paid for a country club membership, also reimbursed the airport $523 for dues for September and October at Chenal Country Club, in West Little Rock, near Mathieu's home. Mathieu said that he’d used the club previously for staff retreats and had paid for it; after talking to a couple of commissioners, he said he got a “social membership” in anticipation of needing the club for meetings when airport construction, which begins next year, tears out the administrative offices. Mathieu said the club membership was never used. He said Schueck instructed employees to repay anything that anyone could perceive as “problematic,” so he terminated the membership. “Now I have to find a new place for us to hold meetings,” Mathieu said.
Mathieu also reimbursed the airport $694 for an Oct. 23 meal at Ruth's Chris steakhouse in Rogers. Mathieu said he’d inadvertently used his airport card, rather than his personal card, to pay for dinner for “six or eight people,” he said.
Both Mathieu and Malinowski reimbursed portions of some $400 worth of meals at Arthur’s Steakhouse Oct. 14 with a consultant. Their wives attended. Mathieu reimbursed the airport $71.86 and Malinowski $87.86 for their wives’ portions.
Malinowski has also written the airport a check for $291.21, but the airport could not provide explanatory documentation because “we have yet to process this item’s support.”
Mathieu refunded $125 for a tux rental at Paul-Morrell Oct. 15 and $41.64 for fuel for the car provided him by the airport on Oct. 22.
Employee Carrasco-Meza refunded the airport $254.6 for a night at the Scottsdale, Ariz., Westin Kierland Resort, where she was attending an Airport Concessions Conference; a note on the bill describes it as a “personal day.”
Elwin Jones, purchasing manager, reimbursed the airport for a $12.89 FedEx charge.
One of the striking things about charges on the bill is the high number of business lunches charged to the airport’s Visa and American Express bills. (Only Mathieu and Malinowski have access to the American Express bills. Several managers have airport Visa cards.) The charges were usually small, and at inexpensive restaurants — such as Homer’s and Corky’s barbecue. If airport employees went to lunch locally, it appears they often charged it off as a business expense.
Mathieu said that airport employees will no longer be able to charge business lunches off-site unless they are with non-employees with whom the airport is doing business. He also said alcohol may not be charged to the airport under any circumstances; previously, the airport paid for business guests who ordered alcohol with a meal.
Mathieu talked about other Visa bill charges that the Times had questions about.
Lands End shirts
Bills from June 2008, when Mathieu took over as executive director, show the airport has spent $12,650.70 on shirts from Lands End. The purchases included polo shirts for men and women as well as collared pima cotton dress shirts. Charges in many cases included logo applications. An accompanying photo shows Mathieu in one of the shirts, with a logo embroidered above the pocket.
Mathieu said the airport started providing the shirts to its employees “several years ago,” including some for commissioners so they can be identified as such on travel to professional conferences and more recently special shirts for the November groundbreaking ceremony for the new airport. Notations on the bills indicated orders for employees in administration, maintenance, operations, property and human resources. “I typically get a shirt or two,” Mathieu said. He said his wife also buys him dress shirts with the airport logo and executive director stitched on.
Gift to UAMS
A $5,000 gift to UAMS was for membership in the Chancellor’s Circle. Mathieu said membership would enhance the medical care airport employees receive. Mathieu lost his father to cancer and his mother to Lou Gehrig’s disease, he said, and so he knows that people can feel “lost and hopeless” dealing with doctors and hospitals. There are legal questions, however, about public agency contributions to private corporations under the Arkansas Constitution, even charitable ones.
Housing and moving expenses
Visa bill records from 2009 and 2010 reveal that the airport often pays for job candidates (and sometimes their wives) to fly to the airport for interviews, and sometimes pays for hotel and rental cars for them. New hires get a housing allowance until they can move to permanent housing, Mathieu said. The benefits are all part of the airport’s contract negotiations with the employee. It's unclear if there's any clear standard for which employees can have their housing paid for and how long.
For example, bills reflect $4,360.50 to house business and properties manager Joel Feldman from March to April this year. Others who’ve gotten housing allowances in 2010 include Luann Behm, Tom Sutton (manager of design and construction) and Delmar Knight. The Times has not asked the airport accounting office to verify the newspaper’s understanding of the charges, usually made by Allen Williams, the airport’s director of human resources.
Moving expenses recorded on the bills include $1,592.96 for Karen West (buyer), $1,715.72 from Miami, $2,189 for Sutton; and $4,550 for items from California. The latter might reflect the moving charge for Larry Weston, operations manager.
The Airport Commission is expected to discuss spending practices at a committee meeting late next week.
COMMENT FROM MAX: The airport has been run like someone's private playpen, not a public agency. It clearly operates under no audit function worthy of the name. If a state agency operated this way — lavish dining, extra pay perks such as housing payments for select employees, purchase of apparel, drinks, tux rental, etc. (and we're not through searching) — MEMS couldn't handle the calls to respond to mass legislative stroke-out. Mathieu's dissembling with the Airport Commission and us is another factor that, as yet, the commission hasn't adequately dealt with. I'm sorry, but I have to add: This is why the city should demand a better accounting of the tax money it funnels to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, whose leader, Jay Chesshir, has been among those who've been feted with fancy meals and wine by Mathieu at public expense.
PS — I can't help but note that the closest airport parking spots now rent for $13 a day. Didn't that use to be about $6 in the pre-Mathieu era (June 2008 he became permanent director)?