Airport panel orders its own fraud probe
The Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority will conduct an internal probe of its own to try to get a handle on what federal authorities are investigating about the airport, the authority board decided late Tuesday.
But because agents with the FBI and U.S. Department of Transportation have sealed their investigation of the airport, authority board members aren’t sure what they will be looking for.
As a result, after nearly two hours behind closed doors discussing the matter with the authority’s attorney, Michael Morgan, it decided to conduct the probe and hire an additional attorney with experience in federal criminal matters to help.
“The purpose of the investigation is to, first, ascertain exactly what the nature of the conduct at the airport that may have drawn scrutiny is, and then to conduct an investigation that fully informs the board (as to) what conduct may have occurred, and take steps consistent with correcting that,” said authority board member Rick Wagner, who along with board member David Hibberd will form a special litigation committee to look into the matter.
That investigation is to include conducting a full audit of the authority’s financial records.
On Nov. 7, several federal agents executed a search warrant of the airport’s administrative offices, seizing undisclosed financial documents. The nature of that search is unknown, even to the authority board, because a federal judge immediately ordered it sealed.
The FBI has only said the probe concerns fraud allegations of unnamed airport administration.
While some members of the Grand Junction Airport Users and Tenants’ Association called on the board to place Aviation Director Rex Tippetts on paid administrative leave while federal authorities conduct their investigation, the board said it wasn’t ready to do that.
“At this point, we owe it to all members of the authority, the board and the community to see what the preliminary results of the investigation are,” Wagner said. “There may be determinative points (in the investigation) that we’ll look into issues like that. At this point, I think it may be a little premature, but we are going to move with all deliberate speed. I think that is something that is very much on the minds of all the members of the board.”
The attorney the board hired, someone Morgan had already been in contact with for that past two weeks and had at the meeting, is William Taylor, a partner in the Denver law firm of Ridley McGreevy & Winocur.
Taylor is a former state and federal prosecutor who specializes in defending clients suspected in federal and state criminal matters, including such things as fraud, racketeering, false claims and conspiracy.
The resolution the authority approved on a 6-1 vote put a $35,000 cap on the attorney’s fees the board will pay “without further authorization of the board,” authority chairman Denny Granum said.
Board member Steve Wood cast the lone dissenting vote.
Members of the users and tenants association were highly critical of the board and its decision to go into executive session to discuss the matter. Under Colorado law, such boards are allowed to do so when discussing certain things, such as pending litigation and personnel matters.
“I don’t know what’s happening, I just know historically that this organization ... if this was the way we kept records then, no wonder we’re under scrutiny by the federal government,” said Bill Pitts, a former authority board member and one of about 40 people who attended Tuesday’s board meeting.
“I’m a retired cop,” said Wayne Clark, another user association member. “If an officer got involved in, not even a shooting, but an allegation that might be serious, they were put on leave or suspended with pay. Nothing like that has happened here.”
The board gave no indication how long its investigation would take.
Last week, Moody’s Investors Service released a warning saying the impact of the federal investigation could adversely affect the airport’s credit rating, threatening about $77 million in federal grants for numerous capital construction projects.