by Max Brantley
Commission chairman Bob East has written two checks totaling $7,629 to the airport as reimbursement for the cost of a private plane he and Airport Director Ron Mathieu chartered for a trip to Washington, D.C., in May, to meet with Arkansas’s congressional delegation.
East wrote the first check, for $3,429, Nov. 5, three days after the Times made its first FOI request for information about airport spending. His second, for $4,200.83, was made out Nov. 17.
In a memo to his files upon receiving East’s first check, Mathieu wrote that “Our mission was to meet with the six different members of Congress at several different physical locations in one day within an eight to ten hour period.” That, “coupled with Chairman East’s schedule commitments required us to travel using the services of a private air transportation operator.”
In a letter to Mathieu accompanying the second check, East wrote that traveling commercially would have required that the men leave Little Rock on Tuesday for meetings Wednesday and Thursday and return Friday. By chartering a flight, East said, he was able to meet business commitments on Tuesday and Friday. “After the scrutiny we’ve received about travel expenses, and other expenses, I don’t feel comfortable about this arrangement unless I pay the entire cost of the private travel. I don’t want, nor do I need, any monetary benefits from serving on the airport Commission, nor do I want any appearance of impropriety, so I decided it would be best for me to reimburse the Airport for the balance of the flight. This means you received your travel free, as well as mine, plus you are not paying any hotel and meal expense for the extra nights we would have been in the City.”
The reimbursement did not include $913.75 the airport paid for a limo Mathieu and East used to get around D.C. There was no explanation for why this expense was necessary over cabs or mass transit.
TICKETS TO SOIREES
The Times also uncovered further spending by the airport in the name of charitable contributions, a practice that's questionable under the constitutional ban on the giving of public money to private corporations, such as private foundations established for fund-raising purposes.
The Times reported earlier this week that Mathieu paid for a $5,000 membership in the Chancellor’s Circle at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences with his airport-issued
American Express Visa card.
New records released show that at Mathieu’s direction the airport also paid $5,000 to the Winthrop Rockefeller Cancer Institute to sponsor the 2010 Gala for Life dinner recognizing Commissioner Tom Schueck and his wife, Marge, in May, and $500 to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, apparently for tickets to UAPB’s Hall of Fame recognition of Commissioner Jesse Mason, and $1,250 for 10 tickets to the Aerospace Education Center’s 31st annual Hall of Fame, both in October. Airport spokesman Tiajuana Williams said Mathieu had not reimbursed the airport the cost of any dinner tickets because he'd not been asked to do so.
WHY FLY COMMERCIAL?
Documents also show that Commissioner Schueck has provided through his company Schueck Steel, a division of Lexicon, a private plane for commissioners on several occasions, getting reimbursed for fuel costs from the airport. In 2009, Schueck, Mathieu, construction manager Tom Dexter, East, assistant director Bryan Malinowski, commissioners Tom Clarke and Jimmy Moses and consultant Greg Detmer flew to Las Vegas and, on a separate trip, to Indianapolis via Madison, Wisc. (Dexter took Mathieu’s place on one of the trips.) Total fuel cost for the trip was $9,279. Included in the documents were calculations that showed it would have cost $8,189 for the party to fly commercially had they taken the cheapest flights available.
Lexicon also provided planes for unidentified airport employees on June 8, 2007, for round trips to Boise, Idaho, and Manchester, N.H. ($12,196.91 total); for Mathieu, finance director Carol Snay, East, Schueck and someone identified as J. Ross for a round trip July 19, 2007, to Fort Myers, Fla. (where Mathieu and deputy director Malinowski were previously employed, $5,468.72); and for an unidentified trip in 2008 ($1,005). The total paid Lexicon for fuel since 2007 is $27,866.78. No information was provided on whether commercial flights would have been cheaper or more expensive.