Lawsuit: Airport fraud rampant
A civil employment lawsuit filed against the Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority board of directors and former Director of Aviation Rex Tippetts alleges wide-ranging fraud and deception at the airport; by Tippetts himself, but also including Airport Authority board members and possibly local contractors as well.
In the lawsuit, former Airport Security Coordinator Donna VanLandingham claims Tippetts fired her in 2011 as retaliation for “her refusal to obey orders of Tippetts to perpetuate a fraud which he was committing” against the Federal Aviation Administration. She also claims she was fired to prevent her from going to authorities and exposing numerous allegations of fraud.
Agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Department of Transportation raided Airport Authority offices on Nov. 6. All the documents associated with that warrant are under seal, though it is known that their investigation is connected to fraud allegations involving airport administration.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Denver last week — about a week after the Airport Authority board fired Tippetts without giving any reason — and unsealed on Friday.
VanLandingham claims in the suit to know about or have possession of documentation that indicates Tippetts:
■ “Falsified the reasons” to build a fence around the airport perimeter, a project that was completed in 2011;
■ Arranged for certain bidders “to have the inside track” on major projects and purchases;
■ “Conspired” with members of the Airport Authority board to allow them to purchase what was described as “used” airport equipment at low prices;
■ Purchased goods for the airport that he then used for his personal benefit;
■ Awarded contracts to family members of the Airport Authority board.
As airport security coordinator, VanLandingham had access to sensitive information involving security systems at the airport, as well as construction projects involving security issues, according to the suit.
She also allegedly had direct knowledge of the purchase of vehicles and supplies for the airport, and many times was involved with requests for proposals, particularly for airport vehicles.
During Tippetts’ tenure, the former Walker Field changed its name and completed some $45 million in capital projects. The main road to the airport was realigned and repaved, the parking lot was expanded and repaved, a new fuel station for rental cars was built, the terminal gained a Subway restaurant, and numerous commercial airlines began non-stop flights from Grand Junction to major cities.
The airport also completed construction of a controversial security fence around its perimeter, leaving numerous disgruntled, general aviation clients in its wake because of the new security measures.
REFUSAL TO LIE, THEN DEMOTION, THEN FIRING
It appears from the timeline laid out in the lawsuit that the construction of the security fence — and VanLandingham’s apparent refusal to lie to general aviation clients directly affected by it — were critical to creating the rift between her and Tippetts.
Regarding the fence project, VanLandingham’s specific duties included, according to the suit, reviewing bids from contractors, sub-contractors and other vendors, and compiling the data for analysis.
She alleges the original idea of a fence being built to keep out wildlife somewhere along the way was converted by Tippetts into a security fence. He also deceived, she alleges, when he said a U.S. Department of Agriculture assessment called for keeping out wildlife, and when he said the Transportation Security Administration required a new fence for security reasons.
The suit also alleges that Tippetts concealed the fact that because the fence was actually a security fence, it was ineligible for federal funding.
Additionally, VanLandingham said she brought concerns about violations of TSA regulations to Tippetts’ attention, which she said were met with him telling her “to shut up.”
With knowledge that the fence was being designed solely to keep people out of general aviation areas — and that Tippetts had allegedly been deceiving the Federal Aviation Administration, the TSA, the Airport Authority and airport tenants — VanLandingham refused to lie at a meeting with general aviation tenants. That apparently sealed her fate.
Soon after, Tippetts demoted VanLandingham to the Subway fast-food franchise in the airport terminal. And a month later, on Jan. 5, 2011, Tippetts fired her, the lawsuit alleges.
That day, he offered her a take-it-or-leave-it separation agreement in which VanLandingham agreed to “forever, unequivocally and unconditionally” promise not to sue the Airport Authority or individual employees. She signed it — under threat, she alleges, that she would not get her seven weeks of accrued paid off-time, worth $8,153, if she refused.
Her lawyer asserts in the lawsuit that she “had no choice” but to sign the separation agreement, adding “she was unaware that there were laws prohibiting bribery and intimidation to obstruct justice.”
In the end, VanLandingham contends that a cascade of events led to her eventual firing by Tippetts.
“Tippetts discharged VanLandingham in retaliation for her refusal to carry out his orders which required her to lie to the (general aviation community) about the requirements of the TSA … Tippetts discharged (her) under circumstances which were designed to prevent her from obtaining information and revealing to the proper authorities the fraud he was perpetrating on the United States Government and other illegal acts he was committing,” the suit reads.
Tippetts’ lawyer, Harry Griff, told The Daily Sentinel on Saturday that he “defers all comment about the suit to the Airport Authority board,” despite his client being the central focus of VanLandingham’s lawsuit.
Airport Authority board attorney Mike Morgan could not be reached for comment Saturday.
The attorney who filed the suit on behalf of VanLandingham, John Steel of Telluride, said in an email he did not have anything to add to the complaint.
In her suit, VanLandingham is seeking double her back-pay losses, additional damages and compensation, court costs and attorneys’ fees, as well as her job back as airport security coordinator and applicable raises.