by Max Brantley
The Little Rock Airport Commission this morning adopted new rules on financial expenditures following exposes by the Arkansas Times of a number of questionable expenses, including a $40,000 contribution to Little Rock Christian Academy (nominally for a small ad) for a football field. Airport Director Ron Mathieu's son attends the school. Mathieu has also reimbursed some $3,000 in questionable expenses, more than $1,000 for personal meal expenses unrelated to official business. In one case, he said he "inadvertently" charged a $700 personal dinner to his airport charge card. We've also disclosed that the airport buys thousands of dollars worth of shirts for employees each year, including customized dress shirts for Mathieu. And that Mathieu has spent lavishly on fund-raising social affairs of private nonprofits, a questionable expenditure of public funds under the Arkansas Constitution.
Leslie Peacock will report more later this morning, but we'll get to the bottom line quickly: Nobody, Mathieu or commissioners, will pay for any past transgressions and the rules changes are mostly cosmetic.
It would appear the commission views this as the end of the road. The meeting opened with praise for Mathieu from a local organization of business aviators — the kind of business bigshots that have long controlled the airport. Mathieu was again apologetic and said he'd feared for a time he might loses his job. Apparently not any longer. Not for overspending. Not for being dishonest to the Airport Commission when it brought up the $40,000 putative ad expenditure. Airport Commissioners Tom Schueck, who performed the financial review (and said nothing Mathieu had done was prevented by regulation), and Chairman Robert East, both have applied for reappointment to the commission.
East recently reimbursed most of a $9,000 charter flight that he said was necessary for meetings with Arkansas congressmen so he could miss less time at work. He and Mathieu also engaged a $900 limo service for the meetings. East said this week of the limo expenditure, reported in the Times last week, that it was necessary because as many as five people used the limo. The bill for the limo expense, reported in the Times, listed only two passengers, Mathieu and East. East said former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater was among those participating in the meetings.
New rules will reduce Mathieu's discretionary spending limit and require commission review for a range of expenses, from advertising to foreign travel. Mathieu has traveled abroad extensively, always in business class seats (though the policy allowing seat upgrades has not been changed).
It was the Little Rock Club at work and at its worst. Mathieu has done a wonderful job, all said, not counting misspending and lying. The commissioners, by extension, have done a fine job and deserve reappointment as much as Mathieu deserves high praise. Commissioners all yukked it up — in the manner of towel-popping, golf clubhouse hijinks — about the Hawaiian junket they customarily take, passed up this year for appearances' sake.
Mathieu is going to get a personnel review, but what do you bet it will be accompanied by a pay raise come January?
Accountability? There is none in Little Rock city government, except for laborers. They get fired when money is tight. At the airport, they light their stogies with figurative 10-dollar bills courtesy of jacked-up parking and car rental rates and laugh at us chumps too stupid to understand the complexities of aviation — but who do know thievery when we see a $700 personal steak banquet charged to our checking account.
Please note: Glowing remarks today included some from Carl Finch, the aircraft charter rental operator who provided that $9,000 flight for Commissioner East and Mathieu.
As expected, the Airport Commission approved new rules on travel and spending by the top brass at the airport that, with the exception of lowering the amount the executive director can spend at his own discretion and other small changes, made formal previous airport practices. Commissioner Tom Schueck, who coordinated the rule changes, and Commission Chief Bob East both noted that none of the expenditures reported on in the press since the Times’ first story on a $40,000 ad buy that helped Mathieu’s child’s private school buy football field turf “violated any airport policies.”
Did they violate common sense, propriety or sound stewardship of a public agency? Those questions weren't addressed.
The Commission did cut in half the amount of money the director can spend on purchases at his own discretion from $50,000 to $25,000 and limited his spending on advertising to $5,000 a year. The Commission must now approve all new ad venues, formats or mediums regardless of expense. Bids will be required on purchases or contracts exceeding $25,000. Commission approval will be required for any school-related advertisements and purchases of tables or tickets for local functions.
The new rules also spell out that alcohol and expenses incurred by wives and spouses, such as meals, are not reimbursable. The Commission’s finance committee will also review credit card expenditures by staff every month.
East said the commission had “tweaked” certain policies “in light of being under the microscope,” and that the new rules would render the airport “squeaky clean.”
The tenor at the meeting was jovial, as commissioners expressed confidence in Mathieu and pride in the airport’s financial health. East said the airport is in better financial condition than ever, showing a 700 percent increase in profits over the past several years. Skyrocketing rates for parking and other airport services have more than made up for flat commercial air service usage.
In his monthly report to the Commission, Mathieu noted that the airport had received a record $21.1 million in grant funds in 2010 from the FAA, TSA, ARRA, and PFCs (passenger facility charges). “To be candid,” Mathieu said, the airport’s success at getting grants involves negotiation and benefits from “relationships.” Scheuck asked — rhetorically — if Mathieu’s travel was important to building those relationships, to a ripple of laughter in the room.
Commissioners Schueck, Jesse Mason and Virgil Miller canceled their travel plans to Hawaii after the press examination of spending at the airport; Mason asked Mathieu to report on how many airport commissioners attended the conference when he returns. Mathieu said he would do so and noted that Schueck, Mason and Miller would be missing several seminars especially for commissioners.
Outgoing Commissioner Jimmy Moses said he’d “never been around a more remarkable professional” than Mathieu and said many larger cities would no doubt “like to pull you away” from Little Rock.
Commissioner Jim Dailey, noting the 2011 budget’s anticipated expenses of $281,500 for staff training, travel and education, said that while the number looks big, it was justified.
Mathieu repeated the lecture he gave to the finance committee last Friday that the new conservatism in Congress bodes ill for airport revenues, threatening reduced grants and fees airports can collect, and said that his membership on the board of the American Association of Airport Executives will put him in a position to work for favorable legislation.