Little Rock National Airport Executive Director Ron Mathieu and Mayor Mark Stodola flew to Paris Oct. 3-8 to meet with executives of Dassault Falcon Jet, which operates a manufacturing plant at the airport. They flew first class to Atlanta, business class to Paris. They ate at French restaurants and took French taxicabs and stayed at the Prince de Galles hotel. The tab, based on receipts turned in by Mathieu to the Little Rock airport, came to a total of $15,121.31.
In an e-mail to the Times, the mayor wrote: "Since the trip was made to discuss saving existing jobs and to lobby for the creation of new jobs at Dassault by urging them to build their new SMS Jet on Airport property, the airfare was an expense of the LR Municipal Airport Commission. It was not an expense of the city's general fund. I also did not make the reservations. I was asked to represent the city by the airport and AEDC [Arkansas Economic Development Commission] on behalf of the Governor's office. Mr. Dassault also happens to be a Mayor of a municipal suburb of Paris."
Stodola's statement of financial interest filed with the city for the year 2009 reported only that the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce paid for $175 in meals on Stodola's trip. There was no information on the trip to Paris because, the mayor said, the statement asks only that he report payment from "nongovernmental sources." The airport "is a governmental unit," Stodola said.
Graham Sloan, director of the state Ethics Commission, said, however, that, generally, any expenditure of more than $150 on behalf of a government official is reportable. He said the definition of a "governmental source" is a gray area in the law. Does it mean only the public official's own government? Or does it mean a payment from a separate source? That's never been addressed, Sloan said.
The mayor's four nights at the Prince de Galles (A Luxury Collection Hotel) cost the airport $3,069.87 (2,020 euros). Mathieu's room charges were a bit more expensive, at $3,503.93.
Receipts turned in to the airport by Mathieu offer a picture of the meals he, the mayor, Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce president Jay Chesshir and others enjoyed on the airport expense account. At La Christine ($176.89), for example, Mathieu and the mayor dined on a special entree and appetizers of filet of beef, foie gras, lemonade, etc. At L'Alsace on the Champs Elysees ($122.16), the director and the mayor had stuffed mussels, escargot, a cabbage dish, and non-alcoholic drinks. The tab at La Galichon (no receipt), a lunch with the mayor, Jay Chesshir, Don Hendrix and Becky Thompson (the latter two are not identified), was $128.86.
The last night in Paris, the Little Rock group pulled out all the stops at Le Pichet de Paris, where diners Mathieu, Stodola, Chesshir and a fourth person (name illegible) had a lovely French repast of escargot, shrimp, rock crab, duck foie gras, filet of sole, tuna steak washed down with whiskey and wine, including two bottles of Saint-Jacques (78 euros) and a bottle of Mouton Cadet Blanc for 36 euros, or $54. Altogether, the bill was more than 500 euros -- on the airport charge the amount was in dollars, $842.68. (Airport policy, unlike state practice, allows purchase of alcoholic beverages with public money for "entertainment.")
The mayor was not successful in persuading Dassault, which had laid off 150 employees earlier in 2009, to staunch the flow. It cut 200 more jobs in December, two months after the mayor's return. Dassault's headquarters for North and South America and the Pacific Rim is in South Hackensack, N.J.
Chesshir, incidentally, heads an agency that Stodola has annually recommended for a $200,000 taxpayer outlay in the name of economic development. Stodola has also defended Chesshir's refusal to disclose the specifics of how that money was spent. Among other things, Chesshir has refused to say whose salaries the city is helping to pay, an important point because a city contract with the chamber says the money is not to be used for the chamber's political efforts. If it is subsidizing employees who do such work, it would appear to violate at least the spirit of the contract. Stodola said he didn't know — and he didn't ask — whether the city's tax money paid the expenditure by the chamber on his behalf in Paris. The city contract says the chamber's contract is covered by the FOI. Chesshir interprets it to mean he need not provide any information to the media beyond a general summary of spending.