Columns » Max Brantley

Airport scandal

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You think somebody using a state pickup to commute to work is a scandal?

You think the Game and Fish commissioners have been arrogant and insensitive to how high-handed they appear?

Get a load of the Little National Airport.

Leslie Newell Peacock is working on a mountain of information about airport operations, but the tip of the iceberg would cripple the Titanic. It certainly rips a hole in airport executive director Ron Mathieu's image.

It's real simple. His kid is a student at Little Rock Christian Academy. The school needed money for a new football field surface. Mathieu himself gave $5,000. But the school's fund drive was short. Mathieu came through. He said city's public airport would kick in $40,000 for the private church school's football field.

The paperwork we've unearthed hints that this may have been originally intended as a direct donation. There's now, at best, a fig leaf for cover -- an advertising contract. For $40,000, Little Rock National is allowed to place a small promotional logo on the west Little Rock football field for 10 years. All payable on the front end. The turf vendor had to be paid, after all.

It gets worse. A sharp-eyed airport commissioner noticed at a meeting earlier this year that the monthly airport advertising budget had jumped in May from $6,000 in 2009 to $47,000 in 2010. When he asked about the big change, Mathieu jumped into the discussion, cutting off a financial official who mentioned $40,000 in new advertising. He said the airport had undertaken new initiatives to "drive traffic" to the airport website and push the "airport brand." One commissioner mentioned he'd seen no signs of the new advertising. It's no wonder. You must attend a sporting event at Little Rock Christian and then it's not so easy to spot on the sideline.

NEVER during his filibuster did Mathieu mention the Little Rock Christian $40,000 payment. Instead of saying it constituted virtually the entirety of the budget increase that month, he issued a fog of words that left the impression it represented a broad range of new initiatives. See the transcript of the discussion in this week's issue for yourself. Or listen here.

Mathieu refused to be interviewed by our reporter about this. He'd only accept written questions. And then he didn't respond to those. His paid flack, Tiajuana Williams, said I was "threatening" her and said she'd reported me to her legal counsel when I said their refusal to be open was disappointing and that we'd exhaust every effort in response. She has been non-responsive since.

The airport commissioners, who hold one of the most avidly sought patronage appointments in city government? Not a one we've been able to reach has yet jumped to the obvious conclusion: Airport coffers were plundered for a personal interest and commissioners were badly misled at that June 15 commission meeting. Not a single commissioner offered even a hint of concern, in light of Mathieu's remarks, about the fact the increased expenditure came solely from a $40,000 outlay for intermittent exposure before some private school football fans.

But you have to remember that commissioners are able (some do, some don't) to travel yearly, expenses paid and in first-class seats, to Hawaiian resorts for a junket charged to Mathieu's Little Rock National Airport Amex platinum card. Bite the hand that feeds them? It apparently isn't done.

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