Fired airport worker tipped FBI
A nearly five-month-old federal fraud investigation focused on the Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority originated from the airport’s former security coordinator, according to a Telluride attorney.
Attorney John Steel said in a court filing that his client, Donna VanLandingham, who claimed in a federal lawsuit she was forced out in the face of threats to expose alleged wrongdoings by airport leadership, also sat down with the FBI and told her story.
Steel said he was with VanLandingham during her interview with federal agents.
Denver FBI spokeswoman Suzie Payne declined comment Wednesday.
Steel’s disclosure came in a filing Monday, urging U.S. District Judge R. Brooke Jackson to reject a pending motion from lawyers for Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority, which seeks dismissal of VanLandingham’s lawsuit.
VanLandingham is a “compelling example” of why enforcement of signed legal waivers, or releases, should be forbidden in cases of whistleblowers, Steel argues.
“Plaintiff believed she had incriminating evidence of illegality and wrongdoing,” Steel’s pleading says. “Plaintiff knew that her superior, the senior person managing the airport (former aviation director Rex Tippetts), was aware of and concerned about what she knew. She believed she was discharged solely because of her refusal to cover-up and lie to shield her supervisor.”
Steel offers a chronology of events after VanLandingham was fired in January 2011, when she claims she signed under duress a “take-it-or-leave-it” separation agreement from Tippetts pledging not to sue the Airport Authority.
She alleges she signed the deal to get $8,163 she was owed by the airport.
“When plaintiff learned from an attorney familiar with these matters that the release might not be enforceable because it violated the public policy which encourages employees with evidence of illegality and fraud to come forward, she spoke to the Federal Bureau of Investigation with the undersigned,” Steel’s filing reads.
It continues, “Without the public policy protecting whistleblowers when they courageously come forward, the overriding goal of protecting the United States from fraud and criminal behavior would be seriously hampered.”
Steel urges Judge Jackson to allow VanLandingham’s lawsuit to go forward.
Danielle Urban, a Denver attorney hired by the Airport Authority, argued in a motion earlier this month that VanLandingham waived all future claims when she signed a separation agreement and can’t sue. Urban’s filing also denies suggestions she signed the deal under duress.
While Airport Authority lawyers are fighting VanLandingham’s claims, its board of directors in February adopted new policies specifying whistleblower protections, aside from the establishment of a fraud hotline.
Tippetts was recently dismissed from VanLandingham’s lawsuit after parties, including Steel, agreed he can’t be sued. Steel said in a memorandum the dismissal of Tippetts from the lawsuit “is in no way” a concession of Tippetts defenses, merely an acknowledgement the law assigns him no individual liability.
VanLandingham claimed she was first demoted by Tippetts to manage the Subway franchise at the airport, then fired Jan. 5, 2011, as retaliation for refusing to perpetuate alleged fraud by Tippetts against the Federal Aviation Administration. The lawsuit alleged Tippetts, and possibly unnamed members of the airport board, were engaged wide-ranging fraud and deception.
No arrests have been made in the federal investigation, which became public Nov. 5 when the FBI executed search warrants at the airport’s administrative offices.
Federal authorities have said they will pursue a civil forfeiture action to claim ownership of a pair of trucks seized in the investigation from Tippetts and former airport board chairman Denny Granum. Attorneys for the men have said they will fight the action in court.