"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
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.)
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