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Little Rock Airport Executive Director Ron Mathieu did not lose his job this week — wasn't even close to losing it, Airport Commission Chairman Bob East told reporters — after the Arkansas Times disclosed in a story published online last week that Mathieu had channeled $40,000 in airport funds to his son's private church school, Little Rock Christian Academy, to help buy turf for the football field.
Mathieu and commissioners contacted last Friday defended the transaction as payment for an advertisement. However, the news brought a hail of criticism. Tuesday morning, the Airport Commission called an executive session at its regular meeting to discuss Mathieu's employment.
Mathieu, who last Friday evening issued a statement accusing the Times of publishing "innuendo and untruths" in its story, read a statement of apology at the opening of the commission meeting. He said after several days thought, he decided he made errors in judgment. "I was focused on the process and missed the greater issue," he said, of not consulting the commission for advice on the expenditure.
Mathieu, who's paid $181,000 a year, and his media relations manager, Tiajuana Williams, who makes $96,000 a year, refused to speak to the Times about the story last week or answer written questions. They referred questions that concerned documents to the airport's counsel, Carolyn Witherspoon, whose firm is on a $10,725 monthly retainer.
Mathieu said Tuesday he wanted to make six apologies: To the commission as a whole for "failing to make sure his actions" didn't create controversy; to Commissioner Tom Schueck for his misleading response to Schueck's question about the expenditure at a June meeting; to his staff, saying, "You have been damaged"; to the public for "not doing a better job"; to the "editor and staff of the Arkansas Times for not granting a personal interview" when the paper requested one last Friday; and to his family. "There is no excuse for my mistakes and I accept the judgment of the commission."
When it became clear no answers were forthcoming from the airport to numerous questions, the Times published its story on-line Friday afternoon. Mathieu then released a statement to media following the story — after Times' reporters had left for the day — saying he was "saddened" by the decision of the Times to publish the story. He said that his staff had handled the details of the deal with Little Rock Christian to avoid a conflict of interest. It was the airport's first and only ad on a football field.
Mathieu currently has authority to spend up to $50,000 unsupervised. It appears the airport officials believe he may delegate that authority to others, here Deputy Director Bryan Malinowski, who signed the contract with Little Rock Christian.
East said Tuesday that the Airport Commission will try to find a way to get the $40,000 back from the school, which hasn't been commenting. He also said the Commission will review the amount of money that the director can spend on his own authority, now $50,000, and asked Commissioner Schueck to review how the airport spends funds on travel and other expenses, "to look into everything we're doing," and report back in December. He said the commission believed Mathieu had made a "serious error of judgment," but otherwise would take no personnel action. He said "everybody makes mistakes" and the apology was accepted.
The story that originally appeared on-line reported that Mathieu avoided mention of the specific expense when asked directly about it at a June Commission meeting. He intimated an increase in spending was for a variety of new ad efforts, when it was solely for the football field sponsorship. (See sidebar for full transcript.)
For its $40,000, the airport got a 7-by-10-foot painted logo on the field that features the airport's web address, www.fly-lit.com. The invoice for the check made out to Little Rock Christian Academy on May 15 notes that it is for a "turf sponsorship agreement." The airport issued the check a month after LRCA development director Jason Carson sent Mathieu an e-mail with the subject line "important reminder regarding your LRCA turf pledge ..."
Addressed to "Friends of Warrior Athletics," Carson's e-mail said, "I just wanted to remind you about your donation to the turf project. As of today, only about 40% of the pledges have been realized. We will need all pledges turned into cash donations before this project can be given the green light. ... Our deadline is fast approaching so please send it in as soon as possible and remember this is a tax-deductible donation."
Mathieu responded to Carson's e-mail saying he thought the "airport advertising pledge" should have been sent out earlier.
When a commissioner asked at a June commission meeting why May's marketing budget had gone from $6,000 last year to $47,000 this year, Airport Finance Director Carol Snay replied that it was because the airport had a $40,000 advertising expense. Commissioner Schueck asked for more information, and Mathieu jumped in, explaining that the expense was to push traffic the website; he cited specifically television and radio ads and a banner at the Race for the Cure. He did not mention the turf advertising at Little Rock Christian.
Mathieu finally granted the Times an interview Tuesday afternoon, following the commission meeting and a damp groundbreaking ceremony for an airport expansion. At that groundbreaking, Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jay Chesshir, another Little Rock Christian Academy parent, prayed for "special blessings" and guidance for the commission and airport leaders.
Mathieu's only comment to the Times last week, a prepared statement distributed by Williams, came only after the Times published its story. She provided a copy of a prepared statement by Mathieu several hours after his 5:30 p.m. news conference in which he accused the Times of printing "innuendos and untruths," though he cited no factual errors. He said that it would have been unfair for him to have to pass up the opportunity simply because he had a personal relationship to the school. He called it a "clean business transition [sic]."
Commissioners had been warned by Mathieu's staff before the Times called Friday that the newspaper had been researching airport records. When reached Friday none was ready to criticize the expense.
Commissioner Jesse Mason insisted that the money was not for providing turf for the field but to advertise the airport (that later proved to be a talking point provided commissioners by Williams). Mason described the advertising as a 10-year contract, and a bargain at $4,000 a year, though it was all paid up front, unusual in the advertising business. The payment amounted to about 15 percent of the airport's $270,000 annual marketing budget.
Schueck said he didn't remember his questions at the meeting, and expressed confidence in Mathieu. "Our director is a pretty sharp guy; I'm sure he operated within the system." He did seem surprised at the way the turf sign was paid for, exclaiming "$40,000 at once?"
Commissioner Jimmy Moses said he couldn't comment because Airport Commission chairman Bob East had said all questions should come to him. East also declined comment pending Tuesday's commission meeting.
Commissioner Kay Arnold, in response to an e-mail question from the Times, relayed the talking points Williams had sent to her. Williams told Arnold:
"We felt this to be 'kosher' as the value is exceptional for the term of this advertising flight. For less than $4,000 a year we have exposure to people who are considered loyal to products and services provided by companies that partner with them through advertising sponsorships. Our targets include those with discretionary incomes who travel frequently for business and leisure. This advertising opportunity fit well for our goals.
"Over 10 years (possibly 12) we will reach our audience repetitively for a very reasonable annual advertising cost and in a way that doesn't get caught in too much clutter."
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