Grand Junction airport boss Tippetts fired
In a surprise move Tuesday and without offering details as to why, the Grand Junction Airport Authority Board fired Rex Tippetts, its director of aviation.
Tippetts, who has been head of the airport since 2005, had already been placed on paid administrative leave as a direct result of an FBI and U.S. Department of Transportation investigation into possible financial fraud at the facility.
The move drew immediate reaction from Harry Griff, a Grand Junction attorney Tippetts hired in the wake of the federal investigation that began Nov. 7 when several FBI and Department of Transportation agents executed a search warrant at the airport’s administrative offices and seized numerous financial records.
“I have to tell you quite frankly, this has taken Mr. Tippetts by surprise,” Griff told the seven-member board moments before it voted 5-0 to fire him. Board Chairman Denny Granum and board member Sam Susuras abstained from voting.
“We understood the rationale for putting him on paid leave, and we appreciated the fact that it was paid leave,” Griff said. “The reality here is that there have been no charges brought (and) the board had made clear that it does not know what is being investigated. I, frankly, don’t understand the rush to judgment.”
The exact nature of the federal investigation is unknown because a federal judge immediately ordered its search warrant sealed. The FBI has said only that the probe concerns fraud allegations of unnamed airport administrators.
Griff said that he’s spoken with past board members who served “at the time the subpoena alludes to,” and that they, too, don’t know what the investigation is about.
Griff said that Tippetts, who did attend the meeting but did not speak, had the full support of those past board members, had “great” job performance reviews and was held in high esteem.
“I think this is bigger than Mr. Tippetts,” Griff said. “If you terminate Mr. Tippetts while the investigation has just started, really ... who’s going to want to be your next airport manager? Who would want to work for a facility that operates like this? This is bigger than just what to do at this moment in time with Rex, who has been charged with nothing, who has been found guilty of nothing, who has been accused of nothing, and who has stellar recommendations from all of your predecessor boards.”
Griff asked the board to keep Tippetts on paid leave while the investigation is ongoing, and promised to continue to cooperate with the FBI investigation and an internal probe that the board ordered of its own.
The board, however, offered no reasoning as to why it chose to terminate Tippetts’ employment, and didn’t reveal any information as to what its own investigation has revealed, saying a second attorney it hired last month to help in the matter still hadn’t completed his examination into what federal authorities are investigating.
Like Griff, Susuras also questioned why the firing was taking place, saying he, too, was caught off-guard by it.
“When I voted for the motion to put the director on administrative leave, we had no evidence then and we have no evidence now,” Susuras said. “My feeling was, he would be on administrative leave until evidence was produced to us. I had no idea that this motion would be presented tonight, and I’ve got the feeling that some (board members) do know. It’s totally beyond my understanding why we did not discuss this before, and we did not know this motion was coming forward.”
The only comments came in the form of a reading of the resolution to fire Tippetts, which was presented by Board Member Stephen Wood.
“Whereas, the director of aviation is an at-will employee of the authority and pursuant to article five, second one of the bylaws of the authority, he serves, and I quote, at the pleasure of the board,” Wood said. “Whereas, it would be in the best interests of the authority if Mr. Tippetts’ employment with the authority be terminated effective immediately, now therefore a motion duly made and seconded and carried that this resolution be adopted.”
When the board placed Tippetts on paid leave earlier this month, it made Deputy Airport Director Amy Jordan interim director. Granum said the board would discuss filling that top post at its next meeting on Jan. 2.