How long for answers in the airport probe?
It’s been nine months since FBI agents raided offices at the Grand Junction Regional Airport and we still don’t know why. No charges have been filed. No arrests have been made. No one has been indicted.
The federal warrant that authorized the search is under seal, meaning it’s off-limits to open records requests. Investigators often attach affidavits to applications for warrants in which they specify the evidence they feel provides the “probable cause” a judge needs to authorize a search.
The investigation led to the seizure of three trucks — an important development for anyone trying to get to the bottom of whatever the federal authorities are looking into. At some point, the feds were expected to justify the seizure and explain how the trucks fit into some kind of criminal scheme at the airport.
That never happened. On Wednesday, the FBI returned a truck seized seven months ago from Rex Tippetts, the airport’s former aviation director. But it was repossessed by a Wyoming finance company nearly as soon as it was released from federal custody.
Tippetts’ lawyer accused federal agents of tipping off the lender. The U.S. Attorney’s Office evaded making an outright denial, but said the lender’s interest in the truck shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
Count us among those who feel the FBI or federal prosecutors have no business acting as an intermediary between Tippetts and his lender. It’s the most troubling aspect yet of how the government has gone about its business in this case.
The raid is still sending reverberations through the community. In the immediate aftermath, Tippetts was fired and Denny Granum, the Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority chairman, resigned under pressure. A truck Granum purchased from the airport board was also seized under a sealed warrant. Tippetts and the airport were sued by a former employee.
The new airport board conducted an internal investigation and adopted policies aimed at tighter compliance with FAA regulations and restoring the public’s trust. It halted construction of a new building at the airport amid fears that irregularities could threaten future federal funding for improvements. That led to a crisis involving unpaid bills for work that had already been completed and revealed a lack of documentation and contracts with vendors.
The dark cloud hasn’t lifted, despite what we consider a mostly commendable job by the new board to clean up the mess it inherited. Lives have been seriously disrupted and Grand Junction’s reputation in aviation circles has taken a big hit. Current members say no one wants to run this airport, resulting in a dearth of qualified candidates to replace Tippetts. When the board chose an in-house candidate as the lone finalist for the job, critics — this newspaper included — panned the process for a lack of transparency.
The specter of indictments is not helping the board move beyond this unfortunate chapter. But federal investigators don’t seem to be in any hurry to lift this veil of uncertainty. Given an opportunity to provide a basis for the seizure — some clue of wrongdoing at the airport — the federal government punted, and in a very rude fashion.
Federal investigations can move at a glacial pace. We can’t criticize the government for a deliberate approach, but we can urge investigators to do their work as efficiently as possible so that the airport board can get on with its business.
Nine months after launching this investigation, there are no indictments. Lawsuits against Tippetts and the airport have been dismissed by the court. The U.S. Department of Justice has signed a non-prosecution agreement with the airport authority. And we still don’t know anything beyond what the board’s tail-chasing has rendered.