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 Rock 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 ripped a hole in airport executive director Ron Mathieu.

It's simple. We published the story on-line last Friday. Mathieu's kid is a student at Little Rock Christian Academy. The school needed money for a new football field surface. Mathieu came through on a pledge appeal. He arranged for the city's public airport to kick in $40,000 (a minion, with Mathieu's delegated power, formally kicked in the cash.) Nominally, it was an advertising deal, paid upfront for a 7-by-10 logo on the sideline down near the goal line that will be in place 12 years or so.

It gets worse. A sharp-eyed airport commissioner noticed at a June meeting that the airport advertising budget had jumped in May from $6,000 in 2009 to $47,000 in 2010. When he was asked about the big change, Mathieu jumped into the discussion, cutting off a financial official who had mentioned $40,000 in new advertising. Mathieu 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. No wonder.

NEVER during his filibuster did Mathieu mention the Little Rock Christian $40,000 payment that caused the spending jump.

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 reported me to her legal counsel for vowing not to stop investigating. She also stopped responding directly to questions, with the notable exception of an after-hours statement Friday in which Mathieu accused the Times of "innuendo and untruths."

Initial response from airport commissioners was similarly unimpressive. If policy was followed – and policy allows Mathieu unsupervised discretion to spend up to $50,000 on anything – then it appeared to be OK, several said. None questioned the wisdom of an obscure private school football field ad for website promotion.

Enter the Arkansas Times blog. Readers' reaction was fast and furious. It had an impact, I believe. Our story would not be stonewalled as the good suit club that runs Little Rock government typically does with things like taxpayer subsidies of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. By Monday, airport worms were turning. Mathieu still wouldn't talk to us. But he told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he might have erred. Commissioners began announcing misgivings, too.

Tuesday, Mathieu apologized at a public meeting to all and sundry for misjudgments, including the Arkansas Times. The Airport Commission pronounced a "serious error in judgment" and announced an in-house, rather than independent, review of all expenditures. There is much in Mathieu's free-spending ways to review, including first-class junkets to airport conferences in Hawaii and Europe for himself and, sometimes, airport commissioners.

He misspent public money to help a personal interest, his son's school. When questioned by a commissioner, he didn't tell the truth. He later lied about our reporting. His hired hand, paid $96,000 annually in public dollars to provide information, tried to stymie accountability. For this, a slap on the wrist?

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