The worm turns at LR Airport | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The worm turns at LR Airport

Posted By on Tue, Nov 16, 2010 at 6:38 AM

Ron Mathieu
  • Ron Mathieu
The Arkansas Times is still waiting for an interview with Ron Mathieu, director of the Little Rock National Airport, and the airport's media manager, Tiajuana Williams, over Mathieu's $40,000 sponsorship of the football field at Little Rock Christian Academy, where Mathieu's son attends school.

The Times is still waiting for e-mailed responses to questions sent last week when Ms. Williams said there would be no interview for us.

But Mathieu did grant the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette an audience yesterday. He told the newspaper he now believes he might have made a misjudgment in pushing this deal we revealed. There's even talk of attempting to get the money back. Also, some airport commissioners who were reticent to talk to us less week, much less criticize Mathieu, have now changed their tunes. They aren't happy that Mathieu misled them at a June meeting about ad expenditures. They've apparently read some of the howls of outrage about this smelly deal and now think maybe it wasn't such a good idea. Timing is unfortunate. The airport has a lavishly promoted groundbreaking this morning for an airport expansion.

Mathieu told the D-G:

“I am aware that a number of commissioners believe that it should’ve been handled differently,” Mathieu said. “I can’t say I disagree with them.”

This is quite a change from the angry statement he issued Friday afternoon after our story revealing the deal broke. It was, he said in a statement released at a news conference of which we were not informed except by email after our office closed, a story of "innuendo and untruths." The sponsorship was an "interesting opportunity" to be "creative," he said. He said he'd deferred decision-making to his subordinate, Williams, and he also said: "It is important to note that the Little Rock Christian Academy board, like airport counsel, have reviewed this matter and both consider it to be a clean business transition. [sic]"

Clean transition? I asked Carolyn Witherspoon, a member of the law firm that holds the airport's $10,725 monthly retainer contract over the weekend if she had reviewed the matter and found it a clean "transition." I don't have a response to that yet, but I'm wondering if Mathieu threw counsel under the bus. UPDATE: Witherspoon said she had seen the deal and "it did comply with the policy." That, presumably, would be the policy that gave Mathieu discretion for spending up to $50,000 on his own hook. But wait: I thought Mathieu said he had nothing to do with the contract, that it was all Willliams' doing. Does she ALSO have authority to spend $40,000 however she wants? UPDATE: It was not Williams, but deputy director Bryan Malinowski who signed the contract. Same question. Where did he get the authority if not given by Mathieu.

The D-G provided information that Mathieu and his media manager refused to supply us without a trip to his lawyer's office. He's paid almost $181,000 a year and the Airport contributes a fat 10 percent in addition to that to a retirement and deferred compensation plan. It didn't mention the $42,000 vehicle he drives courtesy of the airport. It doesn't mention his lavish travel on airport business.

Airport Chairman Bobby East,
who wouldn't comment to us Friday, tells the D-G he's been talking to Mathieu and will have an executive session on the matter. I think the meeting ought to be in public. And I repeat my opinion of last night that a review of all Mathieu's judgment calls might be in order before a hurryup reprimand and decision to move on. I note that Jay Chesshir, executive director of the taxpayer-subsidized private Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, is on the groundbreaking program for the invocation this morning. The clubby airport operation and its lack of tough oversight is all too reminiscent of the city of Little Rock's refusal to provide public accountability of the money it shovels to the chamber. Chesshir (who if I'm not mistaken is also a parent of an LRCA alum) perhaps will have some sympathetic balm for Mathieu this morning. Reception to follow.

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