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Former CFO files wrongful termination suit against JMAA, chair

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There are no overnight flights at Jackson Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport that will be affected by forecast falling precipitation. Source: WLBT
Updated: May. 13, 2021 at 5:55 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - A 17-year employee for the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority (JMAA) said she was fired for attempting to make commission members follow state and federal tax law.

In February, Arnetrius Branson filed suit against JMAA, former Commission Chair Lawanda Harris, and others, citing wrongful termination.

Branson claims the board fired her after she attempted numerous times to require the chair to report her per diem payments to the IRS and the Mississippi Department of Revenue.

JMAA is a five-member board that oversees operations of the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport and Hawkins Field. Members are appointed by the Jackson mayor and confirmed by the city council.

Some commissioners had received thousands of dollars in per diem related to trips to the Paris Air Show, which Branson said must be reported as income.

She claims that two board members, Harris and Vice-Chair Robert Martin, did not complete the required W-9 forms initially and that Harris refused multiple requests to fill out the documentation.

She added that Harris “emphatically said that she did not want to get a 1099 form and did not want to pay taxes on her per diem payments,” and that she would repay the money in 2020.

The suit further claims that Harris violated the federal Taxpayer First Act, which states that it is unlawful to discharge any employee for providing information “regarding the underpayment of tax or any conduct which the employee reasonably believes constitutes a violation of the internal revenue laws.”

In May, attorneys for JMAA asked for additional time to file a response.

Branson had worked for the authority for 17 years and had served as chief financial officer since 2015.

She filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor in June 2020. However, the department had not acted on the complaint at the time she filed her claim in federal court.

At the heart of the matter was Branson’s efforts to inform commissioners that they had to report per diem as part of the annual taxes.

Members had received $40 a day for expenses for each day they conducted JMAA work while at the Paris Air Show.

Following the 2019 show, board members requested that they be reimbursed back per diem for all air shows they had attended in the past.

James Henley, who was appointed to the commission by the late Mayor Chokwe Lumumba in either 2013 or 2014, received approximately $4,800.

“Other board members asked why Henley had received such a large check. They then requested their back per diem payments. Their payments varied with the length of service on the board,” attorneys for Branson wrote.

In late 2019, board members were asked to complete a W-9 form so 1099 forms could be prepared and sent to the IRS and state tax department.

Three board members completed their W-9′s with no complaint. However, Harris and Martin refused multiple requests to complete the form, Branson claimed.

Branson said Harris refused to respond to numerous emails regarding her need to fill out a W-9 and requested that she communicate with Harris directly.

“Branson understood that... to mean that Harris did not want an email trail of their discussions of financial matters and did not want other board members and/or staff members to be copied on those emails in an effort to reduce knowledge of Harris’ non-compliance,” Branson’s attorneys write.

Despite not filling out her W-9, Branson claims a 1099 form was printed for Harris. However, Harris refused to accept the hand-delivered document at a January 27, 2020, board meeting.

“Because Harris refused to accept the hand delivery attempt, Branson had the form 1099 mailed to Harris’ home address during the final week of January 2020,” Branson’s claim states. “Also during the final week of January 2020, Branson directed (the) submission of all form 1099s, including those issued to all board members, to the IRS and to the Mississippi Department of Revenue as required by law.”

Branson was fired at a special commission meeting on Feb. 10, 2020, at Harris’ request. CEO Paul Brown was directed to advise Branson of her termination.

According to JMAA’s website, a special meeting was held that day at Hawkins Field’s terminal building. Personnel matters were listed on the agenda. However, no minutes for the meeting were posted. Minutes were posted for the meetings before and after that.

WLBT has requested a copy of the minutes from that meeting.

“Branson asked for the reasons for her termination. Brown candidly told her that one reason was Chair Harris’ displeasure with getting a form 1099 on her per diem payments,” the suit reads. “Brown added that Harris had met with Mayor Lumumba and they wanted to maintain a very low profile with the press over the per diem payments.”

Lumumba is Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the late Mayor Lumumba’s son and current mayor. He declined to comment on the suit.

WLBT also reached out to LSherie Dean, spokeswoman for JMAA, but has yet to hear back.

Meanwhile, the state is attempting to take over the airport. The city and JMAA are fighting that suit also in federal court.

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