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The high flying Little Rock National Airport 

High executive pay, foreign travel and $272,000 in credit card charges per year.

If it's January, it must be Hawaii.

Travel and expense records of Little Rock National Airport executives over the past two years show nearly monthly trips to national and international spots. Hawaii is yearly, for the annual American Association of Aviation Executives Airport Aviation Issues conference. It was followed this year by trips to Chicago and Fort Lauderdale in February. Savannah and San Diego in April, Washington and Atlanta in May, Brussels in June, Prague in October. Last year, it was Paris. Montreal. Dallas. Las Vegas. Miami.

It's a high-flying job, being the executive director and deputy director of an airport, and commissioners and others — including Mayor Mark Stodola — sometimes go along for the ride.

An Arkansas Times examination of records produced under Freedom of Information Act requests showed top airport officials rang up more than $272,000 in credit card expenses in 12 months time, more than $20,000 per month.

The charges were primarily for travel, lodging and dining expenses, but with some office supplies and other charges, such as car washes and tires for the top officials' airport-supplied cars.

Airport Executive Director Ronald Mathieu and Deputy Director Bryan Malinowski charged $89,949 to an airport Business Platinum American Express card issued them to pay for travel, meals and other items, between Oct. 25, 2009, and Oct. 29, 2010, an accounts payable history report shows. That works out to almost $3,800 per month per man in expenses, or better than $100 per day.

But that's not all their charges. The airport issues a Visa bank card to its administrative team; charges since Nov. 4, 2009, by Mathieu, Malinowski, finance director Carol Snay, operations director Charles Jones, human resources director Allen Williams and purchasing manager Elwin Jones totaled $182,833.85, or more than $15,000 per month. The card pays for miscellaneous expenses, including meals and fees. Of that total, charges by Mathieu and Malinowski account for $30,161, putting expenses by the top two leaders alone at $10,000 per month. The March 2010 statement includes a gift of $5,000 to the private University of Arkansas Foundation by Mathieu. The state Constitution prohibits government agencies from giving money to private corporations.

The expenses produce a mountain of individual receipts. They are presumably reviewed internally for payment and the airport itself pays for an annual audit, but there is apparently no independent audit of the quasi-independent city agency, such as state agencies, cities and school districts are subjected to by the legislature.

Little Rock National Airport, on city property and overseen by a city-appointed commission, is like other independently funded entities, including the Advertising and Promotion Commission, the Wastewater Utility, and the Central Arkansas Library System. Its total operating income, from gate rentals, landing fees, land leases and the like, is $27.1 million. But it operates more like a private business, paying top executive Mathieu $180,793 (plus an $8,200 bonus in 2009), more than the governor, Little Rock and North Little Rock's mayors, the State Police director, Little Rock's police and fire chiefs. Mathieu drives a 2011 Honda Pilot, a $41,558 vehicle purchased for him weeks ago as part of his contract. Deputy Director Malinowski ($147,465) and Finance Director Carol Snay ($129,794) are paid more than all those officials with the exception of Little Rock's mayor. Malinowski is also provided a car; he drives a $36,562 Toyota Highlander hybrid.

Only Little Rock's mayor and police chief earn more than the airport's director of properties, planning and development Tom Clarke, who is paid $122,424. All of the other four directors are paid $100,000 and up (and two received bonuses of about $3,400), with the exception of media and marketing director Tiajuana Williams, whose salary is $96,174.26, around $1,000 shy of North Little Mayor Pat Hays' $97,517.

Director Mathieu, who can spend up to $50,000 without permission of the Commission, apologized last week for directing $40,000 to his child's private school, Little Rock Christian Academy, for what the airport described as advertising on the school's football field. The money was returned to the airport by the school last Friday.

In an interview last week, Mathieu said he welcomed transparency in his business dealings. It was a change of heart for Mathieu, who initially declined a request for a phone or personal interview with the Times about the football field expenditure. "I live in a fishbowl," Mathieu said. "If you think I've done something wrong, point it out. Clearly, I wouldn't have agreed with you [on the arrangement with Little Rock Christian], but you would have been right."

Mathieu defended the travel expenses as part of doing airline business. He said the Airport Issues Conference in Hawaii is the most important meeting of the year because Federal Aviation Administration policies are discussed there.

The airport paid for first-class travel for Mathieu, Malinowski and Commissioner Virgil Miller to Maui for the conference, at a cost of $8,882.66. Mathieu's and Malinowski's wives also attended, but their tickets were reimbursed to the airport. Mathieu's expense report shows the trip cost $3,357.76 on top of airfare — $1,680 for lodging at the Maui Westin, $1,042.46 for meals (with the "Little Rock delegation"), $561.38 for rental car and incidentals — for his trip alone.

By contrast, the CEO of the Albany International Airport in Albany, N.Y., which has 1.3 million emplanements per year (Little Rock National has 1.1 million), travels five times a year, two of those trips by car to New York City to meet with the FAA, a spokesman said. The CFO travels up to three times per year, and two other directors make one trip per year.

"We do not travel outside the country ... and we have not planned to attend any conference in Hawaii," spokesman Doug Myers said.

Mathieu traveled to Paris Oct. 3-8 last year, on Dassault Falcon Jet business (the economy has forced layoffs at the company's operation in Little Rock since), and Brussels this year, for the Transatlantic Aviation Issues Conference. Malinowski traveled to Prague in October.

The airport picked up another airfare for the Paris trip, its Visa records show: It paid for Mayor Mark Stodola's business class ticket, at a cost of $3,565.97 (the same as Mathieu's). It also paid for hotel rooms for Mathieu and the mayor and restaurant meals. Mathieu's notations on his restaurant receipts indicate the airport wined and dined Stodola, Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce executive director Jay Chesshir and others at several restaurants, including Le Pichet de Paris, where diners Mathieu, Stodola, Chesshir and a fourth person ran up a tab of more than 500 euros (more than $800 in U.S. currency). (See sidebar.)

In an e-mail, Stodola told the Times that he went to France to discuss with Dassault ways to prevent employee layoffs and to promote airport land as a site for an assembly plant for their SMS Falcon jet.

For next year's Airport Aviation Issues trip, to Kona, Hawaii, the airport has purchased business-class plane tickets at $2,690.41 apiece for Mathieu and Commissioners Miller, Jesse Mason and Tom Schueck. It is airport policy that any airport travel of duration longer than four hours justifies purchase of a business-class air ticket.

Monday, Miller said the airport "may have to get some type of reimbursement" on those tickets, since Schueck is making a study of airport expenses, including travel. Commission chair Bob East asked Schueck to come to the Dec. 21 meeting of the commission with a report, including a recommendation on the executive director's spending authority.

Miller said the AAAE meeting in Hawaii had served him well as a way to learn about the aviation industry. If you're going to sit on a commission, he said, "you have the responsibility to learn [about the industry], go to workshops, seminars and conferences."

Almost all of the commissioners, including former Mayor Jim Dailey, real estate developer Jimmy Moses, and East have taken trips on the airport's tab in the past couple of years. Las Vegas, Washington and Atlanta were among the destinations. Commissioner Kay Kelley Arnold's name was not on any documentation as a traveler.

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