Tuesday, December 21, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Bureaucrats flying high

Is it the parlous economic times, a sudden zeal by the media to expose misconduct, or something else? We have had an epidemic of chutzpah in public agencies of central Arkansas this year. Self-serving bureaucrats and, in a couple of cases, their boards fed themselves riotously at the trough of the public treasury and got caught at it, either by a newspaper or state auditors.

First it was the state lottery and its gold-plated director, Ernie Passailaigue. The lottery czar and the coterie of friends he brought with him from South Carolina and elsewhere were flying high, literally sometimes, giving themselves perks and months of time off for their hard work and pretty much ignoring the bookkeeping rules that the tens of thousands of other government employees had to follow.

The state legislative auditor laid out all the accounting regulations that the lottery officials had flouted. It was so bad that Governor Beebe suggested that Passailaigue ought to be fired. The governor, of course, cannot fire him because the constitutional amendment that authorized the lottery made it an independent agency that was free of the governor. He is a bystander like the rest of us, although he got to appoint three of the nine commissioners for whom Passailaigue works.

In the lottery’s case, no one should have expected anything else. Independent agencies tend to assume Olympian status (e.g., the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the state Highway Commission). They are above mortal government agencies. When the lottery commission set out to hire a director they went to Passailaigue, who had set up the South Carolina lottery, and he said that for a mere $324,000 a year and perks they could jar him loose from South Carolina, where he made $226,000 a year, one of the highest lottery salaries in the world. The lottery commission had no hesitancy in closing the deal. He brought along his top aides from South Carolina at approximately what he had been paid there. They were coming to work in the land of milk and honey and they acted like it.

Passailaigue said they had made a few mistakes in their zeal to get the lottery running in record time so that needy Arkansas youngsters could go to college this fall. It needs to be said for the record that not one child is going to college this fall who would not have attended if the lottery had started nine weeks or even nine months later. But Passailaigue and the lottery commissioners said they were going to start obeying the bookkeeping rules, and all was readily forgiven.

Then the Arkansas Times began to detail the audacious spending habits of the executive director of the Little Rock National Airport, a public agency that also operates as an independent entity with a board of big shots from the corporate world. Ron Mathieu came to the airport from Florida. His salary is $180,793 plus an annual bonus ($8,200 last year).

The Times first reported that he had given $40,000 of the airport’s funds to the Little Rock Christian Academy, a private school that his son attends, to help pay for a new artificial turf for its football field. They painted the airport’s website logo on the sideline turf near one of the benches. Then he lied to the commission about what the expenditure was for.

The Times next dived into the airport’s travel and expense records. In the last year alone, Mathieu and his assistants rang up more than $272,000 in credit-card expenses traveling to Paris, Prague, Brussels, Montreal, Hawaiian resorts and many cities across the continent. They travel business class. Sometimes they travel with one or two of their bosses, the corporate executives who serve on the airport commission. The airport always picks up the tab. In Paris, Mathieu had the airport cover the tab for meals at fancy Parisian restaurants for himself, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, and the head of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. Important business, you understand. There were lavish meals with commissioners and their wives on the public tab. In the two years after he went to work at the airport, Mathieu charged the airport $12,650.70 for monogrammed shirts for himself and other officials bought from Land’s End. He enhanced his standing in the community with large charitable gifts from the airport to organizations in his own name, which seems to be illegal. The list goes on.

The airport has steadily jacked up car-rental fees, parking fees and other charges. Now we know why.

Mathieu apologized and reimbursed the airport for a few of the obviously personal expenditures. So did a couple of commissioners. The private school gave the $40,000 back. The commission cut his no-questions-asked expense allowance of $50,000 in half and said they would start monitoring the staff’s expenses more closely. Businessmen went to the commission meeting Monday to praise Mathieu for his stewardship. He will get a bonus and a raise next month.

Then there is our own beloved Pulaski County Special School District. The legislative auditors found rampant illegality and waste in the school district’s operations, both by the superintendent and his top aides (and his predecessor) and the school board members, much of it in travel and expenses. The auditors found so much wrong that the state Education Department may take charge of the school district and dismiss the superintendent and board until it can get its affairs in order again. Some of the questionable spending was in the $25,000 allowance the board gave the new superintendent for moving. He didn’t have to document $5,000 of it. It also provided a Cadillac insurance policy that none of the other teachers and workers in the district received, in violation of state law. When you settle a lavish salary and contract on an administrator, you should not be surprised when he takes advantage of it.

Monday, both the airport commission and the county school board met and took a few steps to reassure the public that they are mindful that their officials are not in corporate executive suites but on the public payroll, where a little bit of care is supposed to be exercised in spending the public’s money.

Something tells us it won’t be nearly enough.