Tippetts removed amid probe
Rex Tippetts, director of aviation at the Grand Junction Regional Airport, was suspended with pay Tuesday pending the outcome of a federal probe into airport business.
Tippetts, who has been director since 2005, is presumed to be connected to an FBI and U.S. Department of Transportation investigation into unknown financial matters related to fraud.
The seven-member airport authority board, which has been conducting an internal investigation of its own, said it decided to suspend Tippetts while that federal probe is underway.
“The investigative committee has done a lot of work in a very short time,” said board member Rick Wagner, one of two board members heading up the internal probe. “We’re trying to be as forthcoming as we possibly can. We’re constrained in ways that I wish we were not ... but be assured that anything that we can share, we will.”
Wagner gave no details as to what the board’s internal probe has uncovered, saying only that “there’s more to be done” before it is complete.
The board, however, scheduled a Dec. 17 meeting to discuss the final outcome of their internal probe.
Tippetts, who earns about $132,000 a year, did not attend Tuesday’s meeting and could not be reached for comment.
Although Tippetts’ future with the airport remains in limbo, the board named Amy Jordan, deputy director/administration, as interim aviation manager.
The matter first started on Nov. 7 when several federal agents executed search warrants of the airport’s administrative offices, seizing an undisclosed amount of financial documents. Even the board doesn’t know the nature of the federal probe because a judge immediately sealed the search warrant, and the FBI only would say the investigation concerns allegations of fraud of unnamed airport personnel.
Moments after taking the action to suspend Tippetts, the board approved its proposed budget for 2014 with a few minor changes, some of which were suggested by Tippetts.
One was to remove a planned expenditure of $120,000 for “fleet scheduled replacements,” a budget line item used to replace older vehicles. It is unknown if such replacements are part of the federal probe.
The board asked why that was being removed from next year’s $5.9 million spending plan, but Gary Schroen, deputy airport director in charge of financial matters, said he couldn’t answer that.
“Rex has that detail. I do not,” he told the board. “It was never provided to me.”
Another change was to suspend more than $10 million in design and construction work for a major capital improvement project to build a new runway.
Jordan and Schroen told the board that Tippetts decided not to apply for federal grants to pay for the first phase of that project because he expected them to be turned down.
“With the new AIP (airport improvement projects), Rex felt with the current investigation that until that’s resolved that the FAA probably would not approve any new AIP projects,” Schroen told the board.
Several board members, however, questioned why Tippetts would make that assumption, and decided instead to file a grant application to the Federal Aviation Administration by the Dec. 15 deadline.
Before that happens, though, the board asked airport authority attorney Michael Morgan to review the grant application to make sure there are no financial issues.
“We have not been informed that any grant funding has been suspended or will be suspended in the future,” Morgan told the board. “We certainly could receive a notice from the FAA that you are in non-compliance and therefore not eligible. We’ve received no such notice.”
The airport’s long-term master plan calls for building that new runway over several years, a project expected to cost about $92 million. The project was to start next year with design work, realignment of 27 1/4 Road and some earthwork.
The project also is contingent on approval from the Bureau of Land Management to turn over about 190 acres of federal land to the airport, something that’s still being reviewed by federal authorities, BLM spokesman David Boyd told The Daily Sentinel.
The board also made another change to its normal procedures as a result of the probe.
It passed a resolution lowering from $30,000 to $500 the threshold when airport checks would require more than one signature.
“In light of what’s going on, any expenditures in excess of $500 would require two signatures of either the chairman or vice chairman, plus a staff person,” said board chairman Denny Granum.
“We feel that because of the investigation, that that’s just prudent business.”
Staff Writer Gary Harmon contributed to this report.