Monday, December 23, 2013

Grand Junction Regional Airport (KGJT), Colorado: Investigation Update

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. Despite an ongoing FBI investigation, an internal investigation into airport operations and the resignation of board member Denny Granum, for the most part, the Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority's Thursday night meeting was business as usual.

The special litigation committee doing the internal investigation did however provide an update on its findings so far.

They say they want to proceed as quickly as possible and have several more avenues to pursue.

They also say their next step is to hire an outside group to conduct forensic accounting to ensure money is going where it's supposed to.

"I think we've determined initially that we have some confidence we know where everything is at and are a little relieved at that," says board member, Rick Wagner. "But I think incumbent upon us to be able to prove that, it's one thing to say it, it's another thing to prove it."

The committee also said several interviews had been done during the investigation... Those interviews along with other digging have produced evidence which they've given to the FBI.

If approved by the board the committee will continue its investigations. But first, officials say they must determine the cost of continuing, and how long it will take.


Regardless of the good that Rex Tippetts accomplished, his legacy may well offset any gains he’s made. That legacy must be borne equally by him and by the previous Airport Authority boards for failing to exercise their fiduciary oversight responsibilities.  

 While the impacts of alleged malfeasances won’t be known until the investigations and lawsuits have run their courses, current costs in terms of legal fees, manpower hours for both employees and the current board, and the black cloud that hangs over the airport are far from insignificant.

Rather than cast citizens who have repeatedly raised concerns as “detractors,” perhaps The Daily Sentinel should question why previous airport boards, the county commissioners and the City Council effectively ignored the concerns. When I made requests of former Commissioners Craig Meis and Janet Rowland, their response was that they only appoint three members and had no oversight responsibility.

As a CPA, I’d like to comment on a couple of financial items. First, I found it interesting that the Sentinel failed to comment on Authority member Steve Wood’s statement at the last board meeting to the effect that the planned $6 million administration building is actually an office building for six people that has a garage in order to qualify as an Airport Fire and Rescue facility. Therefore, it is eligible for FAA funding.

Next, I want to compare two statements. David Gordon, division director of the Colorado Division of Aeronautics, said that in 2008, general aviation visitors to Grand Junction spent about $20 million here, whereas former Airport Authority board member Craig Springer stated that, of the annual airport budget, only $134,000 comes from general aviation. While these are apples and oranges, to quote that budget number as a reason to question whether general aviation is really needed is perhaps indicative of previous boards’ leadership.

I pray that any investigations or lawsuits will be directed at those responsible for the problems and that no taint will be attached to our Grand Junction airport.



Time for new members 
on Airport Authority board

I have read with interest the complaint by Donna Vanlandingham against the Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority and Rex Tippetts. Without commenting on the veracity of the complaint, it does raise some serious issues. Apparently the FBI, at least, seems to believe there may be some “fire” to go with the “smoke.”

In my one and only interface with Tippetts, I found him to be exceedingly overbearing. The issue at hand then was the loss of free parking for the Patriot Guard and others who came out periodically to welcome veterans coming home.

That aside, and once again stressing “if” the complaint is found to be true, it appears that Tippetts ruled with an iron hand and intimidation. Apparently, a couple of board members did not vote for the firing of Tippets. I wonder why. It would appear, possibly, that the board did less than “true diligence” in going along with Tippetts. If the complaint is found to be true, there is enough “smoke” raised about the Airport Authority board itself that may need investigation.

I believe the city needs to take a serious look at how this plays out and immediately begin an effort to find a replacement for Tippetts.

In a recent article, The Daily Sentinel pointed out all the wonderful things Tippetts did to place our airport on the map. While all those wonderful things did occur, it does not mean someone else could not have done them as well, without the allegations of fraud, intimidation and coercion. I would also recommend to the city that it take a long look at the board’s makeup and perhaps look for replacements.


Grand Junction

City may need to take long look at members of airport board

I have read with interest the complaint by Donna Vanlandingham against the Airport Authority and Rex Tippetts. Without commenting on the veracity of the complaint, it does raise some serious issues. Apparently the FBI, at least, seems to believe there may be some “fire” to go with the “smoke.”  

In my one and only interface with Tippetts, I found him to be exceedingly overbearing and a good deal less than truthful. The issue at hand, then, was the loss of free parking for the Patriot Guard and others who came out periodically to welcome veterans coming home.

That aside, and once again stressing “if” the complaint is found to be true, it appears that Tippetts ruled the board with an iron hand and intimidation.  Apparently a couple of board members did not vote for the firing of Tippets. I wonder why?  It would appear, possibly, that the board did less than “true diligence” in going along with Tippetts. If the complaint is found to be true, there is enough “smoke” raised about the Airport Authority Board itself that may need investigation.

I believe the city needs to take a serious look at how this plays out and immediately begin an effort to find a replacement for Tippetts. In a recent article the Sentinel pointed out all the wonderful things Tippetts did to place our airport on the map. While all those wonderful things did occur, it does not mean someone else could not have done, as well, without the allegations of fraud, intimidation and coercion.  I would also recommend to the city that it takes a long look at the board’s makeup and perhaps look for replacements.

Grand Junction

Former Grand Junction Regional Airport Director of Aviation Rex Tippetts leaves Grand Junction City Hall after a recent Airport Authority board meeting. Tippetts was put on administrative leave at that meeting, and eventually fired, in the wake of an FBI investigation into possible financial fraud. 

Jim Hoffman 
CONSIDER THIS -  Free Press Weekly Opinion Columnist

Well, here we go with an excellent end to a 2013.

Monday is the deadline for this column and late Saturday night the computer dies, leaving me without the half-written column that was previously begun on Wednesday of last week. A minor problem for sure, but just one more in what has become a long string of issues big and small competing with the spirit of the Christmas season and the thoughts of a joyous New Year. One more little irritant threatening to increase blood pressure to a new personal high. No, I shall not wallow in self-pity. Life is good with a few challenges along the way.

The firing of Rex Tippetts was one subject of commentary in that now lost column. The Airport Authority did not reveal the reasoning for the axing of Tippetts, an at-will employee, but clearly stated the action did not indicate complicity in any crime or fraud at the airport.

In his defense, Tippetts’ attorney reminded the current board of the glowing performance reviews Rex has received from previous board members. It would have be hard to determine if that fact amounted to an actual defense of Tippetts or a possible indictment of some previous board members. One would hope that it is the former rather than the latter.

At that point in time, some facts were beginning to leak about an impending lawsuit which had been served on Mr. Tippetts and the Airport Authority board of directors. Early whispering indicated the suit would throw the covers off the emerging scandal at the airport and cast some light on the mystery that began when FBI agents showed up and carted off evidence in their investigation of fraud within the administration of the Grand Junction Regional Airport.

As facts of specific allegations within the suit began to emerge, there were indications the possible fraud could be wider ranging and involve a greater number of personalities than was originally anticipated. Allegations directly accused members of the Airport Authority of purchasing “used” airport equipment at below-market value. Some rumors have indicated that among this equipment is likely trucks that were purchased from a local car dealer.

Other allegations are that family members of the Authority board were awarded contracts for work at the airport. Additionally, there are claims that preferred bidders had access to what should have been privileged information that gave them great advantage in the securing of contracts for airport projects. And, of course, the security fence erected at the airport and the rationale for it are also covered within the suit.

While we can hope that these allegations prove largely false, prior experience has unfortunately taught us that avarice and greed exist. The investigation has already cost one reputation, and more are likely to be tarnished at a minimum. No arrests or indictments have yet materialized, so we can only sit on the sidelines and await the next revelation.

As of today claims within the suit are merely allegations of a prior employee who shall be painted as disgruntled. The employee also agreed in a separation agreement not to take legal action on the matter of her termination. Those are issues for the lawyers and courts to resolve.

It cannot be denied that during the reign of Mr. Tippetts our local airport has undergone improvement. Those improvements shall now likely be overshadowed by this darkening cloud over Tippetts, the Airport Authority, and the lack of oversight of our local City Council and County Commission. Also, we may see the unraveling of future airport expansion and the planned new hangar for West Star Aviation and it’s promised 150+ jobs paying $52,000 per year on average. An entity accused of financial fraud and impropriety is not a likely issuer of bonds or recipient of grant funds.

As new allegations and facts emerge, we shall see how many rush to distance themselves from Tippetts and their support for him. Furthermore, it is likely we shall see some distance themselves from their personal involvement on the Airport Authority board and begin claiming they were uninformed, ill-informed and were in no way responsible for their actions, Tippetts’ actions or any illegality at the airport.

Turbulent times: As private pilots cheer ouster of airport director Rex Tippetts, backers wonder whether shake-up will ground future gains  

A decade ago, the Grand Junction Regional Airport wasn’t the Grand Junction Regional Airport. 

It was Walker Field, and it didn’t have a lot of what’s there now.

In those days, there weren’t many ways to fly out of town, unless one had their own plane and pilot’s license. For everyone else in the Grand Valley, commercial flights went only to Denver or Salt Lake City, at least when those flights were active.

That all began to change after 2005, when Rex Tippetts took over the job as director of aviation.

Tippetts may not be universally liked because he has somewhat of an abrasive personality, but few can deny that he’s turned the airport from a sleepy field into a regional hub that has helped boost economic development in the region, his supporters say.

Detractors, however, contend that growth came at the expense of members of the general aviation community, many of whom picked up and left the airport or claim their businesses were harmed by policies and changes pushed through by Tippetts and the Airport Authority board of directors.

In the wake of an FBI investigation into possible financial fraud within the airport administration, Tippetts being fired from the job as a consequence last week and now a civil lawsuit in federal court claiming several improprieties, some people in town are wondering if the good things that happened on Tippetts’ watch will be undone, and whether the federal probe and firing will stymie the airport’s future expansion plans.

“All of us benefit from the fact that this is a regional education, medical, retail and transportation hub,” said Craig Springer, a former Airport Authority board member who served when Tippetts was hired. “This airport is important not just to the people of Mesa County, but to western Colorado. It’s a big deal, a community asset that needs to be treasured. It also needs to be understood.

“Most airports like this are either supported from the taxpayers ... or the county that it resides in, or some agreement between the two,” he added. “This airport has always been, and I pray always will be, self-sustaining. It’s not on the tax rolls, it’s never had to go to the commissioners or the city and ask them for money.”

The growth

Springer, Tom LaCroix and Denny Granum are all past or, in the case of Granum, current chairmen of the seven-member Grand Junction Airport Authority Board. Though they did so before broad allegations at the Airport Authority came to light, published in Sunday’s Daily Sentinel, each came to Tippetts’ defense, saying the things he’s accomplished shouldn’t go unnoticed. Each has served years there and watched as prior airport managers did their best to operate the place.

But it wasn’t until Tippetts came on board in December 2005 that a long-term vision for the airport really began to take off, the three men said.

That’s because Tippetts’ experience managing airports in Aspen, Gunnison and Laramie, Wyo., taught him a lot about running the complex operations, and about how to leverage local money to get Federal Aviation Administration grants for capital construction projects, which cover 90 percent of those costs.

Not long after Tippetts started work, Springer realized just what the airport had been missing out on.

“He called me one day and said, ‘I cannot find any record of this airport ever applying for (FAA) discretionary funding. Can you explain that to me?’ ” Springer said of a phone call he got from Tippetts in early 2006. “I said, ‘I will when you tell me what discretionary funding is.’ He knew where those dollars were and how to go about getting them. He’s similar to Tim Foster (president of Colorado Mesa University). These are guys with vision, they know what they want to accomplish, they’re aggressive. Now it’s $45 million later, that’s the amount of capital projects he’s overseen since he’s been here.”

In Tippetts’ time at the airport, he got the main road into the airport realigned and repaved, expanded and repaved the airport parking lot with extra wide parking spaces, changed the name to a regional airport, built a new fueling station for rental cars, oversaw the building of a security fencing project, placed a Subway restaurant franchise inside the terminal and helped attract new non-stop service to Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Under his tenure, the airport also saw passenger emplanements increase and rental car revenues nearly double, though those numbers have leveled off since the start of the recent recession.

Gregg Palmer, a former Grand Junction mayor and former member of the Airport Authority board that hired Tippetts, said the board wanted a manager with vision and the ability to grow the airport. Board members, he said, knew what they were getting with their new hire — both the good and the bad.

“We recognized right away that Rex probably wasn’t going to be our (public relations) person. He didn’t have a lot of people skills that someone in his position might have. But what he had was a tremendous understanding of the FAA, the funding mechanisms and how to get additional funding for the airport. In that, he did exemplary.

“But he didn’t win a lot of friends among airport staff and tenants. And that wasn’t necessarily what many on the board had hired him to do. We had other people we felt could be a better public face for the airport.”

The push-back

The one thing that has dropped dramatically has been the number of total airport operations, which counts all takeoffs and landings. That fell from 79,010 in 2005 to 49,074 last year.

That’s primarily due to a drop in non-commercial general aviation flights — private pilots who fly in and out of the airport each year. Those numbers have dropped dramatically at most commercial airports across the state and nationwide, in part, because it’s become increasingly harder to maintain a pilot’s license and afford to fly smaller planes, Springer, LaCroix and Granum said.

It was on the general aviation side of things that Tippetts received his biggest push-back, with many users and tenants calling for his resignation and a dissolving of the Airport Authority itself.

Members of the Grand Junction Airport Users and Tenants Association have been outspoken over the past several years, criticizing many of the decisions Tippetts made — everything from who gets leases at airport hangars, to fees they have to pay, to a controversial wildlife fence that was extended to be a security fence with highly restrictive gates. As a testament to their displeasure, 51 of those small-engine pilots and business owners penned and compiled letters to the Transportation Security Administration citing the burden the fences placed on their operations.

Some tenants left — most notably the late Dana Brewer, owner of Monument Aircraft Services, who sold the lease on his hangar and moved to Mack Mesa Airport.

“When I’m at my hangar and I have a visitor or passenger call me from outside I suffer the inconvenience of having to drop what I’m doing, lock up, get back in my car and drive back through the gates, turn around, swipe my card and re-enter the general aviation area with my guest following closely behind,” one letter writer, Reed Mitchell, wrote to authorities. “This awkward, time-consuming and ridiculous maneuver goes on all day long by those of us who own hangars or operate airport businesses.”

Small airplane pilot Bill Pitts said he and others for years have felt like a broken record trying to alert local authorities to mismanagement. Like Palmer, Pitts is a former mayor and former member of the airport board.

“We tried to point out different things,” Pitts said. “How can you have a fence and the north side is open and the records are falsified? I can just recall a paragraph in the application that asked if anyone would be affected by the gates and it was checked ‘no.’ Everyone was affected.”

In the wake of the federal probe, several of the association’s leaders have taken an I-told-you-so stance, saying they’ve been calling for years for more detailed and transparent audits of the airport’s financial records and more scrutiny of Tippetts’ decisions.

“When citizens came forward with concerns rich in documentary evidence, the board’s reaction has been to shoot the messenger,” association president Dave Sheppard told the airport board at a meeting last week. “Over the last 2 1/2 years, this board heard hoofbeats, had dozens of citizens tell them about hoofbeats, had documents presented to them that spelled hoofbeats, and (the board) consistently elected to interpret the hoofbeats in the least plausible fashion possible.

“Until this board defines systems and internal controls to prevent the same outcome, the authority will remain dysfunctional and it could very well happen again. Our members want a vital, successful and respected airport. Let’s make sure our corrective actions are comprehensive and complete.”

Palmer said the acrimonious relationship between airport administration and general aviation tenants reflected Tippetts’ lack of interpersonal skills.

“It could have been handled better,” Palmer said. “The board should have been more aware of it and I take some responsibility because I was on the board at the tail end of it.”

Ultimately, Palmer said he believes the board was “trying to do the best for everybody.”

General aviation

Springer, Granum and La-Croix say the current and past boards have always tried to accommodate the needs of general aviation users at the same time they’ve attempted to boost the commercial side, which brings in far more revenue to the airport and economic benefit to the region.

“If you look at the numbers, it’s easy to ask the question, ‘Do we really need general aviation?’ ” Springer said. “Of a $10 million (annual airport) budget, $134,000 comes from general aviation.”

That’s not to say the Airport Authority intends to turn its back on its general aviation users or tenants, the three men said. Far from it.

Currently, the board is trying to find a way to help one of its major general aviation tenants, West Star Aviation, build an $8 million, 45,500-square-foot paint and maintenance hangar at the airport early next year. That hangar, once built, is expected to create up to 150 permanent jobs with an average salary of $52,000 a year. Those workers would come on top of the 940 who already work in various jobs at the 2,847-acre facility.

To get that done, however, the authority needs to sell bonds to purchase the hangar, which it would lease back to West Star.

But because of the federal investigation, the airport’s lending company is reticent to loan the authority the money it needs to sell the bonds, at least until more is known about what impact that probe will have on the airport’s finances.

While Granum is hopeful all that will get worked out in the end, he’s more hopeful about the FAA’s recent reaching out to the authority and its personnel, specifically the federal agency’s seeming willingness to work with them when it comes to existing and future grant requests.

“To clarify, the FAA is very helpful to airports, but not this helpful,” Airport Authority attorney Mike Morgan told the board last week. “I think they’re going out of their way to help us understand where we are with projects and other matters.”

Though Tippetts now is gone, there are several major projects still in the works, not the least of which is a plan to replace the facility’s half century-old and out-of-FAA-compliance runway. That project is expected to cost about $94 million, and it would be constructed, with the aid of FAA grants, over the next 10 years.

Other, more immediate construction plans call for a new terminal, an administrative building, a new facility for firefighting and other maintenance services, additional taxiways and aprons, separation and extension of the airport’s second runway and an expansion of the size of the airport itself, to make room for even more private companies to locate there.

“We are encouraged that they’re going to be very open and helpful to us,” Granum said of the FAA. “It’s a very, very positive move on their part. It shows there’s a whole new era going on as far as the Grand Junction Regional Airport is concerned.”

The exit

Palmer said, before recent specific fraud allegations became publicly known, he would be surprised if Tippetts “did anything overtly illegal” and he believes his time at the airport had “kind of come to a natural conclusion.” He said Tippetts ran a tight ship financially, was accountable to the board, kept it informed and didn’t get out in front of it.

He thinks the board’s firing of Tippetts was “a little bit premature but not unexpected.”

“There were a number of people at the airport and in the community who were not Rex fans and eventually the board felt pressured to make a change,” Palmer said. “It wasn’t unforeseeable.”

Although everyone still is awaiting the outcome of the federal probe, a civil employment lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Denver last week by former Airport Security Coordinator Donna VanLandingham may shed some light on what’s been going on at the airport.

She claims in her lawsuit that she was fired as retaliation for not going along with what she perceived as fraudulent activity by Tippetts — including deceiving federal authories and local tenants about the perimeter fence, directing contracts to preferred local contractors and family members connected to the Airport Authority board, and purchasing goods for his own personal benefit.

Story and Photo:

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.


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.

Story, document - VanLandingham lawsuit and comments/reaction: