Airport clear of Justice Department, but probe continues
After an FBI raid cast a pall over operations at the Grand Junction Regional Airport last fall, the airport board tightened controls and cleaned up its mess sufficiently enough for federal authorities to pronounce, in binding fashion, that it will not seek to prosecute the airport.
For that, the Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority deserves credit. A non-prosecution agreement signed Tuesday with the U.S. Department of Justice means federal prosecutors won’t press a case against the airport authority itself for any federal crimes related to anything prior to the day of the agreement. Individual board members, past and present, do not enjoy this non-prosecution status.
So, while it’s hardly an exoneration, it’s a reassuring sign that the board is over the hump and can move forward focused on its real job — improving a vital community resource — rather than dealing with a criminal probe.
A new authority board worked diligently to restore the public’s confidence. It instituted several changes, including internal accounting and oversight practices, new personnel and a hotline for whistleblowers — measures that the Department of Justice noted in the non-prosecution agreement. Board members personally interacted with staff to emphasize culture change and a commitment to both transparency and compliance.
The federal investigation has no doubt resulted in a better-run, more tightly managed organization. One of the board’s sobering lessons was realizing how much power it had ceded to Rex Tippetts, the former director of aviation. Tippetts often dealt with Federal Aviation Administration officials single-handedly and possessed institutional knowledge he rarely shared with the board, according to the airport’s internal investigation.
Positive developments, however, do little to erase the specter of wrongdoing. The DOJ agreement only covers the airport entity, not any employees or board members.
It’s been six months since FBI agents seized airport records in an apparent fraud investigation. The raid led to the suspension and eventual firing of Tippetts. Agents seized vehicles belonging to Tippetts and former airport board member Denny Granum, who resigned at the behest of Mesa County commissioners after the board fired Tippetts.
Unfortunately, the FBI has not yet had to justify the seizures in federal court, which could provide some clue as to how these vehicles are connected to a yet-to-be-alleged criminal scheme. No one has been indicted. The case remains shrouded in mystery.
Investigations arise as part of federal government’s accountability imperative. Millions of dollars pass through airport authority boards across the country. FAA grants allow communities to undertake improvements needed to keep up with the growth of the nations’s air transportation network. So, it’s understandable for the FBI to investigate any and all red flags.
This investigation has raised the airport’s FAA risk-level rating, which may compromise future funding. With the region’s aviation future hanging in the balance, we urge federal investigators and prosecutors to move this case to a conclusion as expeditiously as possible.