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Fearless flying

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Starting Nov. 12, the Arkansas Times has been publishing articles on-line and in print on spending practices at Little Rock National Airport, revelations that have prompted the city commission that oversees the airport to make wrist-slapping changes in policy.

Here's the itinerary, the various stops made along the way to current policy at the airport.

n On Nov. 12, the Times reported that in May, at the behest of Executive Director Ron Mathieu, the airport wrote a $40,000 check to Little Rock Christian Academy. The check was, ostensibly, for advertising on the school's football field, but it was written after an exchange of e-mails between the school's development director and Mathieu that spelled out the urgency of receiving the "LRCA pledge" so football turf could be installed on the field. Asked about the $40,000 expenditure at the June meeting of the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission, Mathieu was evasive, saying, "we've done a number of television and radio ads, as you know," and mentioned a banner the airport put up at the Race for the Cure. Initially refusing to speak to a reporter about the expenditure and saying the Times had published "untruths," Mathieu later apologized, saying he was not aware of Little Rock's aversion to public spending on private schools. He maintained, however, that it made sense to advertise the airport on the football field of a K-12 private school. Commissioners called Mathieu's move "poor judgment." At their December meeting they voted to cut Mathieu's discretionary spending limit to $25,000, half the $50,000 he previously had; limited his spending on advertising without commission approval to $5,000; and made it policy that advertising in new venues, formats or mediums and purchasing school-related advertising will now require commission approval.

n On Nov. 25, the Times reported on Mathieu's extensive travel and hotel and meal expenses, including yearly trips to Hawaii (with commissioners, whose way was also paid by the airport, and spouses, who reimbursed for tickets purchased), a trip to Brussels and a $15,000 trip to Paris, the latter with Mayor Mark Stodola, whose way was paid by the airport. The Times also reported that top management at the airport spent more than $272,000 in 12 months time, charged to the airport's credit and debit cards. Among the charges: A $5,000 gift to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences for membership in the Chancellor's Club, a $366 meal at Arthur's Steakhouse for Commissioner Jesse Mason, a $694 personal meal at Ruth Chris' steakhouse, Chenal Country Club dues, more than $12,000 for Lands' End shirts for staff over a two-year period, thousands of dollars on airfare, moving expenses and lodging for new employees in 2009 and 2010. In response, the Commission updated policy to spell out that the airport will not pay for meals for spouses and family, all travel expenses of the executive director must be reviewed and approved by the commission prior to reimbursement, credit card information will go to the commission's finance committee every month for review. Air travelers may upgrade to the next cabin of service if their flight requires more than four consecutive hours on board. Mathieu reimbursed the airport $3,000 for the meal, club dues and tuxedo rental. Three commissioners also canceled their plans to travel to Hawaii in January for the annual Aviation Issues Conference.

n On Dec. 15, the Times reported that Commissioner Bob East reimbursed the airport a total of $7,629 for an aircraft he and Mathieu chartered for travel to Washington to meet with the state's congressional delegation. A $913 limo charge was not reimbursed. The Times also noted previous chartered flights, with all but gas donated by Commissioner Tom Schueck, along with other charitable contributions by Mathieu at the expense of the airport. The travel policy adopted by the commission last week allows chartered air travel, but requires written justification, and says commissioners should apply "a test of public scrutiny, as any expenditure may become a matter of public Knowledge," when incurring expenses.

The commission last week approved a budget of $281,000 for travel to educational conferences and training in 2011. Its personnel committee will evaluate Mathieu's job performance in January and report to the commission in February. The evaluation is done annually.

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