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From AJR,   April/May 2009

Uncovering Extravagance   

A longtime obituary writer breaks the story of profligate spending by airport officials.

By Patrick Crowley
Patrick Crowley is a reporter and columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer and coauthor of 'Saving Grace,? a true crime book.     

Since late November, Lexington, Kentucky's Herald-Leader has mesmerized, outraged, fascinated and even titillated readers with stories about the leadership of central Kentucky's Blue Grass Airport.

The paper, the state's second-largest daily, exposed questionable and possibly criminal spending of more than $500,000 by airport management. It obtained records showing that the airport's executive director and other top managers used their expense accounts and business credit cards to travel lavishly around the world, run up charges at shopping malls, fill personal vehicles with gas, and frequently wine and dine on the airport's tab, charging nearly $5,000 at a Texas strip club.

The series prompted a probe by the state auditor's office and an ongoing criminal investigation by local law enforcement. Airport Executive Director Michael A. Gobb and three of his top lieutenants have resigned under immense public and internal pressure. Other quasi-governmental agencies in and around Lexington are reviewing their own spending and management practices.

People are talking about the stories and the officials' alleged corruption. "It's becoming clear that these guys were nothing but a bunch of overpaid frat boys," wrote a reader in a comment posted on Kentucky.com, the Herald-Leader's Web site. "BG Airport was just a piggybank for them."

Behind this tale of watchdog journalism is reporter Jennifer Hewlett, who spent 22 years as the paper's obituary writer, earning a reputation as a meticulous, accurate and curious reporter able to ferret out information, put sources at ease and tell a good story.

Herald-Leader Assistant Managing Editor Tom Caudill calls Hewlett "a natural reporter," but she had never tackled a story of this scope, an investigation fueled by tips and rooted mostly in obtaining and analyzing thousands of documents.

"It was the biggest story I ever worked on," Hewlett, a polite and unassuming native of Madisonville, Kentucky, said over barbecue at a Lexington restaurant. "You don't often get a reaction like this to a story."

Hewlett joined the paper in 1973 while still a student at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. At first a proofreader and news assistant, she soon covered business, education and general assignment beats. In 1982, she took on the obituary beat, which would establish her talents and presence in the newsroom.

While some reporters considered the beat a newsroom backwater, Hewlett loved it. She was a prolific spinner of yarns, with a writing style that often landed her on the news and features pages.

"There were a few days when I had an A1 obit, a B1 obit and a whole page of obits inside the paper," Hewlett says with a measure of pride. "Very seldom was I given a 'no.' Even in the worst of circumstances people would talk to me."

Hewlett, Caudill says, would routinely file 60 to 80 inches of obituary copy per night. Many were three- to four-line notices, but Hewlett also frequently delivered "some of the best-read stories in the paper," he says.

There were obituaries of local celebrities, like country music singer Keith Whitley and actor Jim Varney of "Ernest Goes to Camp" fame.

Some of her most memorable obits described the lives and deaths of characters like Sweet Evening Breeze, a well-known cross-dresser; Maggie Bailey, the "Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers"; and Ollie "The Widow" Combs, a Faulkneresque character who was an activist against surface coal mining.

When the paper changed its handling of obituaries in 2004, Hewlett estimated she had written about 250,000 obits.

She then became a general assignment reporter and covered some business stories. She took up a transportation sub-beat that involved covering the Blue Grass Airport. In late 2006 and early 2007, she began to hear rumors about heavy spending by its officials.

While still doing the rest of her job, Hewlett began reporting piecemeal on the story nearly a year ago. Working with Projects Editor Sharon Walsh and armed with tips she had picked up from airport sources, Hewlett filed requests under Kentucky's open records law, seeking copies of expense reports, travel documents and other records.

The first batch of records was difficult to decipher. Some documents had been redacted. Some of the printing was blurred and so small Hewlett needed a magnifying glass to read it.

Yet the paper knew quickly that it was onto something. It sought more records, and after complaining to the airport's lawyers about the condition of some of the documents, received copies with less of the information redacted.

But the documents came in boxes and batches with no context, just raw material. Hewlett pieced the story together, using the executive director's credit card receipts, travel agency billings, reimbursement requests and more to track his spending and travel.

She broke the story on November 23 under the headline "A sky-high expense account." It chronicled how Gobb, who for a decade had overseen the nation's 117th busiest airport, had spent much more than his counterparts at airports far larger than Lexington's.

Over the course of three years, Gobb spent more than $200,000 traveling to 33 cities around the world. A 12-day trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2007 cost nearly $13,000; the price tag for a trip to Hawaii for Gobb and other airport directors was $26,000.

Gobb often flew first class, stayed in luxury resorts and attended conferences on international travel issues in Europe even though Blue Grass Airport has no commercial international flights.

Gobb earned $220,000 a year and enjoyed a long list of perks that included an SUV and club memberships. But the Herald-Leader reported that he used the airport's money to spend heavily on gifts and entertaining, including $1,200 at Kansas City Steak Co.; $287 at Harbor Sweets, a Massachusetts candy company; $750 at Penzeys, a gourmet spice firm; $6,500 at a Lexington liquor store; $6,000 at toy stores; and $4,000 for two television sets, electronics equipment and DVDs.

Gobb was not alone. Four other directors rang up $332,000 in expenses in three years on gasoline, travel, alcohol, meals, car washes, hot dogs, professional sporting events and sports merchandise, including a Cincinnati Bengals jacket.

Hewlett, with occasional assistance from other reporters including political writer Ryan Alessi, produced a series of airport stories that began in late November and continues today. But it was the January 6 report that Gobb and two directors had charged about $5,000 at Cabaret Royale, a Dallas strip club, that grabbed the most attention.

"We all agree that the conduct we've heard about is disgusting, it was appalling, it was grossly inappropriate," Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry told the paper. The mayor appoints a board to oversee the airport, a public, nonprofit corporation supported by public and private funds.

"Once [the Herald-Leader] peeled off the first layer, more layers were peeled off," says veteran political and news reporter Greg Stotelmyer of WTVQ News in Lexington. "They dug, and they found it. And the more they dug, the more they found out."

Patrick Crowley

Crowley (pcrowley@enquirer.com) is a reporter and columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer and coauthor of "Saving Grace," a true crime book.