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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Procurement controversy du jour: Newport News airport audit investigation gets off the ground

State, federal agents interview employees at Newport News airport (Excerpted; read article at link)
Sandy Wanner, the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport's acting executive director, said three investigators — special agents with the state police's criminal investigations division, the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General — met with five employees over the course of the day. Last week, Wanner said, the investigator with the Department of Transportation Inspector General's Office asked for copies of the airport's annual audit reports going back to 2009. Those are the annual audits performed by an outside accounting firm, Dixon Hughes Goodman LLC, of Newport News.

The moves come in the wake of a scathing Virginia Department of Transportation audit report that detailed widespread issues with airport spending — including a loan guarantee to a startup airline that ultimately cost $4.5 million in taxpayer money. The airport and its financial practices have been under scrutiny since early this year, when the Daily Press reported that in 2014, the Peninsula Airport Commission quietly guaranteed a line of credit of up to $5 million from TowneBank for startup airline People Express.

After People Express quickly collapsed and defaulted on its loan, the commission paid off the $4.5 million debt using $3.5 million in state airport construction grants, $300,000 in federal grant money, and $700,000 from a regional marketing group funded by local city councils and county boards.

The Virginia Department of Transportation — which vowed to cut off future construction grants to the airport — launched a comprehensive audit that found the commission had improperly used state taxpayer money to guarantee the loan.

Moreover, Attorney General Mark Herring issued a formal opinion declaring the loan guarantee illegal under a provision of the state constitution that generally bars public bodies statewide from lending their credit to private interests.

The state auditors also found that airport executives routinely used commission money for personal expenses, skirted procurement rules, and worked to shield the loan from public scrutiny.

They found that Ken Spirito, the airport's executive director at the time of the loan, also authorized some airport employees to charge up to $2,400 for gasoline on their airport credit cards without requiring it to be tied to business travel. According to the audit report, Spirito directed the airport accounting department not to treat the gas allowance as taxable income.

The audit report quotes a passage from the letter of dismissal that the airport commission sent to Spirito: "These payments actually are compensation to each employee receiving free gas, not fuel expense. According(ly), you have hidden employee compensation in the fuel expense account, also exposing these employees and the PAC to back taxes, additional filing obligations, and possible interest and penalties."

As controversy swirled around the loan guarantee and improper spending, the commission and city have seen major shake-ups.

On March 2, Newport News City Manager Jim Bourey — who voted for the loan agreement as an airport commissioner — resigned as an airport board member, then stepped down as city manager a few days later.

Also on March 2, the commission fired its longtime legal counsel, Herbert V. Kelly Jr., who had assured commissioners the loan guaranty was legal. The job serving as the airport's lawyer had been in Kelly's family for decades, with the airport terminal named after Kelly's father, Herbert V. Kelly Sr.

The Newport News City Council later removed longtime airport commission member Aubrey Fitzgerald as a board member.

Finally, on May 15, the Peninsula Airport Commission fired Spirito after auditors reported he had used commission money to pay for personal expenses — including car repairs for himself and Jessica Wharton, the airport's marketing and public relations director.
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