Sunday, June 30, 2013

Virginia Beach aviation museum owner: We're fine for now

A gleaming silver and banana-yellow B-17, a vintage bomber from World War II, rolled past the window behind David Hunt. It's up for sale.

Seated at his desk inside the Military Aviation Museum in Pungo, Hunt, the museum's director, reiterated Saturday that the business is fine - for now. Although the museum won't close soon, some of the facility's planes, worth anywhere between $20,000 to $7 million each, may have to go to keep the operation aloft.

Last Monday, Gerald Yagen, owner of the museum and one of the world's largest collections of World War I- and World War II-era planes, announced that he no longer can afford to keep the collection and the museum. The four vocational schools he owns, including the Aviation Institute of Maintenance, Centura College and Tidewater Tech, are being sold. No details were disclosed.

"A lot of people see it as the glass half-empty as opposed to being half-full," Hunt said. "But we are still open for business and business is normal."

The museum, which opened in 2008, was a way for Yagen to share his passion for the old planes, Hunt said.

"The money that was provided to buy and refurbish the planes came from the success of his colleges," Hunt said. "But the way we see things are at the moment, we see frustration with government cutbacks.

"Some of the out-of-state colleges might have to close. It is our hope that we can stop some of that bleeding by selling some of the planes.

"We have lived off of the generosity of Mr. Yagen and what the colleges have made over the years," he said. "And now it's payback time. It's time to sell some of those assets to support other parts of his business."

The hope is that the entire collection won't be sold off. It includes planes in Virginia Beach and around the world, Hunt said. He didn't divulge exactly how many planes are in Yagen's collection. It's been reported that the inventory is around 50 planes.

"The grounds and buildings are owned by Mr. Yagen, and even if we sold, like, 10 or 12 planes, we'd still have 30 or 40 planes stored elsewhere," Hunt said. "I still believe we have one of the finest collections covering the first 50 years of aviation."

The museum's schedule is packed with events through 2015, Hunt said. Thirty of them - weddings, car shows and private parties - are booked through the end of the year.

Rentals for the space, including the 15,000-square-foot Navy Hangar, run from $2,200 to $3,300. At $10 a pop, not including military discounts and free admission for WWII vets, the aviation museum is among the most affordable tourist attractions in Virginia Beach, Hunt said.

About mid-morning Saturday, a crowd of roughly 200, mostly senior citizens, had come to hear Norwood Thomas Jr., a former WWII sergeant whose appearance was part of the museum's "Warbirds Over the Beach" series.

The crowd sat among the aircraft as Thomas recounted how he parachuted into Normandy, France, in the summer of 1944.

Hunt said the museum typically draws up to 500 visitors on Saturday, its busiest day of the week.

Because the runway was slick with rain Saturday, a flight of the Hawker Hurricane, a WWII plane reportedly worth $3 million and also up for sale, was canceled.

"It would be very sad to lose these planes," Hunt said. "The positive side is that they can go to other collections.... But we're not looking to close the museum doors anytime soon - not at all."

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Questions remain in 'driveway-gate' scandal: Sikorsky Memorial Airport (KBDR), Bridgeport, Connecticut

Published 11:22 pm, Saturday, June 29, 2013

Brian Lockhart,  CT Post


BRIDGEPORT -- Can one city official on his own get around all the usual checks and balances to give a $400,000 taxpayer-funded driveway to a business partner, then hire that same buddy to build it?

"I would find it pretty much impossible," said John Gomes, who as former head of Mayor Bill Finch's CitiStat agency was charged with making government more efficient.

"The top echelon has to look at it, approve it."

But that "rogue employee" defense is exactly what some worry the mayor's office will use as the administration tries to explain why it built a 1,000-foot-long, no-bid gravel driveway to controversial developer Manuel "Manny" Moutinho's waterfront mansion and hired Moutinho's Mark IV construction to do it.

"I've been in Bridgeport politics long enough to know how it rolls," said Councilman Andre Baker, D-139, one of several council members who say they were never told about the driveway work. "They ain't taking the fall."

The City Council is scheduled to discuss the controversy with the administration at Monday's regular meeting. Members will also begin looking at changes to Bridgeport's purchasing rules.

When Hearst Connecticut Newspapers first reported on the project, completed this month, the mayor's office said the expense was legal and necessary for a long-sought safety upgrade at the city-owned Sikorsky Memorial Airport in Stratford. The administration said the airport work will close a dirt right-of-way used by Moutinho and three neighboring property owners, so Bridgeport owed them a driveway to their land on Stratford's shoreline.

Then the mayor pleaded ignorance when Hearst asked what Finch knew of veteran airport manager John Ricci's decades-long friendship with Moutinho. Finch suspended Ricci with pay pending an internal probe.

"That's nonsense," said Jeff Kohut, a Democrat like Finch and one-time mayoral candidate who served on the city's Ethics Commission from 2005 to 2010. "The mayor's been around way too long. He knows all the players."

Ricci has run the airport, part of the city's public facilities department, since the early 1990s. Ricci could not be reached for this story but had told Hearst the Airport Commission -- whose members include Finch and City Council President Thomas McCarthy, D-133 -- as well as the city's law department knew of his ties to Moutinho.

"I've known John Ricci to tell the truth," said former Mayor John Fabrizi, Finch's immediate predecessor.

Ricci's fate is uncertain. He is a member of a union and would have the opportunity to fight any disciplinary action, from a warning to termination. That could pose more complications for Finch by protracting the scandal.

"I think if John Ricci feels that he's being thrown under the bus. He's not going to go without a fight," Fabrizi said. But Kohut said he believes deals will be cut to give all sides some cover.

"They could get rid of him, but it will cost us a lot of money," Kohut said. "My hunch is they won't even get rid of him. The union will protect his job, people will forget about it and things will be as they are."

Baker and other council members want to launch their own investigation.

"We've got constituents asking questions and the `I don't know' doesn't do it anymore," said Councilman Carlos Silva, D-136.

Much of the skepticism stems from a belief that it was impossible for everyone in Finch's inner circle -- many long-time public servants and political operatives -- to be in the dark over Ricci's affiliation with Moutinho.

And the Ricci-Moutinho relationship seems to have been one of the worst-kept secrets in Bridgeport.

"They were close friends; that's common knowledge," said Fabrizi.

As Hearst has reported, in 1986 Ricci -- then a former mayoral aide -- was selling housing units for Moutinho.

Public land records show several transactions between Ricci and Moutinho, his family and other associates over the years, including in 2012, when the driveway deal was being negotiated by Ricci and Finch's legal staff.

And the pair sometimes eat lunch together at Lancers Cafe on Harral Avenue, according to employees there.

Both Moutinho and Ricci have contributed to Finch's campaigns.

"It's hard to say you were not aware that Ricci knew Mr. Moutinho," said Gomes. "Perhaps they've been in the same environment as the mayor himself or people affiliated with the mayor -- fundraisers and other things."

The driveway deal is not the first opportunity Ricci had to clarify a relationship with Moutinho. The Airport Commission in 2011 was poised to sell Moutinho 5.5 acres for Mark IV Construction's rock crushing operation.

Moutinho submitted what was supposed to be a non-refundable $35,000 deposit, then in December demanded it back, plus other expenses, writing in a letter to the commission there was "substantially less usable property."

On Jan. 3, 2012, commissioners, including Finch and McCarthy, huddled with Ricci behind closed doors over the matter, emerging to vote on returning Moutinho's deposit in exchange for a promise Mark IV would not sue.

Nancy Hadley was director of Bridgeport's economic redevelopment office under Fabrizi in the mid-2000s and is a city resident. Fabrizi's predecessor, former Mayor Joseph P. Ganim, was convicted on federal corruption charges for accepting kickbacks and bribes in exchange for awarding city contracts.

"I was always harping on, `I need to know the relationships first, guys. I need to understand the relationships because I work for a mayor who took over for a guy who wound up going to jail,' " Hadley recalled.

Lennie Grimaldi, a longtime friend of Finch's who ran the mayor's successful 2000 race for state Senate, as recently as 2011 mentioned Ricci's friendship with Moutinho on his local website, Only in Bridgeport.

Moutinho was planning to build the driveway himself for $200,000, obtaining the necessary land use permits from Stratford last summer. So it is unclear whether the city was legally obligated to do it for him.

And if Finch's law department did conclude it owed Moutinho and his neighbors a driveway, did the city need to replace their dirt right-of-way with a gravel one, plus pay for 1,200 feet each of buried electrical, gas, sewer and water lines, plus two fire hydrants? Those bells and whistles were on Moutinho's original plans filed in Stratford.

And why wasn't the driveway work properly bid, since, according to the mayor's office, the City Council approved the $400,000 last September, but Stratford records show the city only took over Moutinho's permits in March.

Then Ricci was allowed over a few days in April to obtain three quotes from city contractors. Moutinho's was the last. It was also the cheapest.

Those quotes only showed up in the city's Purchasing Department two weeks ago.

"I don't know if heads are supposed to roll, here," Hadley said. "I do expect every dollar paid by every single resident of this city for taxes needs to be spent with the highest possible ethical standards."


Federal Aviation Administration investigating use of Michigan's state-owned planes

June 29, 2013 8:43 PM  

Written by  Kristen M. Daum

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the state of Michigan’s practice of leasing its passenger planes to officials at Michigan State University.

The federal inquiry comes less than a month after a Lansing State Journal series on the taxpayer-funded planes, which focused on how the aircraft are used and who uses them.

Officials from the FAA, the Michigan Department of Transportation and MSU confirmed a preliminary probe is under way by the federal agency’s branch office in Grand Rapids. The initial review could trigger a formal investigation by the FAA.

MDOT and MSU officials said the review relates to the university’s use of the state-owned planes by top athletic officials for recruiting trips.

MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson said the FAA is seeking financial documents such as billing, invoices and proof of payments, including “receipt and check-stub copies from MSU.”

Cranson said MDOT was first contacted by the FAA on Monday.

“MDOT aeronautics officials are happy to cooperate with the FAA,” Cranson said. “The MDOT Office of Aeronautics treats MSU the same as they treat every other customer state agency.”

MDOT is responsible for the state’s four passenger planes and manages the flight schedule. The aircraft are available to all state employees and those who work for Michigan’s 15 four-year public universities who can justify the travel costs for them for work purposes.

The State Journal reviewed five years’ worth of trip logs for the planes and reported earlier this month that MSU head men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo and MSU head football coach Mark Dantonio were among the most frequent fliers.

Izzo had traveled at least 55 times in the five-year period, or nearly once a month.

Dantonio had used the state planes slightly less, with at least 47 trips in five years, the State Journal found.

Flights for their recruiting trips are paid for out of MSU’s athletics department budget, which is self-sufficient and does not receive taxpayer funding. The athletics department pays MDOT a per-hour fee to use the planes, officials have said, and the state planes are one of several charter options that the athletics department uses.

In all, MSU employees and guests used the state planes at least 150 times during the five-year period analyzed by the State Journal. That was third-most among any state entity, behind MDOT and the Michigan State Police.

At least two-thirds of the passengers on the MSU trips were affiliated with the university’s athletics department, the State Journal found.

By comparison, academic professionals at Michigan Technological University in the Upper Peninsula used the planes five times over the five years, and one University of Michigan administrator used a plane last fall. Neither university appears to be involved with the current FAA inquiry.

Cranson and MSU spokesman Jason Cody said they are complying with verbal requests from the FAA for documents and information.

“At this point, this is an informal investigation by the FAA Flight Standards District Office in Grand Rapids,” Cranson said. “Their findings will determine whether it becomes a formal investigation by (the Office of) FAA Chief Counsel in Chicago.”

Cody acknowledged the FAA is seeking “records pertaining to those flights” that involved athletic coaches and staff, but he declined to elaborate on MSU’s involvement in the investigation.

Regional FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory confirmed the review of MDOT’s “use of aircraft” but she declined to provide further details — such as what the probe was specifically targeting, when it began and when it might be resolved — because the FAA “does not discuss open reviews.”

The State Journal has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the FAA seeking records pertaining to the investigation.

Under federal open records laws, the FAA has 20 business days to provide an initial response to the request but can take longer to actually provide the requested information.

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Save Yeager: Huge Charleston loss

June 29, 2013


A couple of months ago, retired Adjutant Gen. Allen Tackett warned that the National Guard's 130th Airlift Wing at Yeager Airport might be eliminated -- costing 1,000 jobs and inflicting an $89 million annual loss on the local economy -- if a new bridge isn't built into Coonskin Park, enabling closure of the current road past the Guard's armory complex.

That prospect was dismaying. But now it's even worse. Yeager Director Rick Atkinson says airline service at the hilltop airport could be lost if Yeager is forced to pay $1.2 million for fire-and-rescue protection, which the 130th now provides free. This would require the airport to nearly double its landing fees for airlines.

The current landing fee is $3.67 per thousand pounds. But Atkinson told the Yeager board that losing the Guard's fire service would boost the rate to $6.33.

"If we had a landing fee in the $6 to $7 range, there wouldn't be an airline flying here," he told board members.

He added that loss of the Guard help also would force Yeager to raise terminal rents charged to airlines, another burden that would drive carriers away.

This nightmare must be avoided. The bridge into Coonskin must be built in an attempt to save the Airlift Wing.  Here's the background:

Eight years ago, the U.S. Base Realignment and Closure Commission recommended closure of the 130th, partly because its security is difficult to maintain. The road to Coonskin passes the National Guard headquarters and its link to the airport military site.

In a massive effort to save the 130th, county, state and federal leaders drafted a plan to erase federal objections. One item was creation of a new Coonskin entrance with a bridge across Elk River at Mink Shoals. This would allow closure of the current road into the park, thus securing the Guard units.

Since then, all parts of the 2005 agreement were met -- except construction of the bridge entrance.

BRAC is scheduled next year to choose another list of military bases to be closed. Unless the Coonskin bridge is built, Gen. Tackett fears that the federal commission will target the 130th again. He suggested bonds and other methods to pay the bridge cost to save the Airlift Wing.

Tackett, a member of the airport board, asked Director Atkinson to assess losses that closure of the unit would inflict on Yeager. The director's response included the ominous prospect of losing airline service.

Losing 1,000 jobs, $89 million yearly economic boost and airline service would be a terrible blow to the Charleston region. Such a setback must be prevented. Regional leaders should arrange funding and build the new Coonskin bridge in an attempt to avoid calamity.