3 On Your Side Investigates: Driving on Your Dime
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Months of travel records obtained exclusively by 3 On Your Side show one of Jackson’s airport commissioners driving -- not flying -- to most conferences and seminars across the country over a twelve-month stretch, costing taxpayers nearly three times more than round-trip airfare to those destinations.
That analysis shows current Jackson Municipal Airport Authority Board Chairman Robert Martin drove to and from seven cities during those twelve months, including Las Vegas, Washington, D.C. and Phoenix.
In one instance, records claim he went to Las Vegas for a runway summit, drove back on Feb. 15, 2020 and hit the road again almost immediately on the 18th, driving even farther to go to another city in Nevada: Reno, for another event.
In all, Martin said in documents he drove more than 16,000 miles during that time.
He also got paid the federal reimbursement rate of 58 cents for every one of those miles, making more than $9,300 for driving roughly 246 hours.
“It’s very peculiar that someone who’s on the airport authority doesn’t really like to fly. It’d be like being on the harbor commission and not like boats,” said ethics and government affairs lobbyist Craig Holman, who works for Public Citizen.
It’s also more expensive, too.
Records Martin submitted to JMAA showed a comparison of airfare for some of those same trips.
3 On Your Side estimates those same trips would have cost less than half what Martin ended up getting paid.
Holman said traveling by car could be efficient if you have multiple stops along the way, but that’s not the case here.
“It is just one stop: Las Vegas, Reno or DC, or wherever he’s traveling to. It could be efficient if it were some very short distance. But that’s not the case here either,” Holman said. “I mean, we’re talking about long distance travel that consumes several days. You know, the distance from Jackson to Las Vegas is roughly a three-day drive.”
Why travel by car?
A letter obtained by WLBT explained that medical reasons required Martin to travel to Phoenix and back in his personal vehicle.
Minutes from JMAA meetings also said the board found “it was medically necessary for Martin to travel by motor vehicle” instead of a commercial flight and would reimburse his trip even though the cost of traveling by car was more expensive.
Martin abstained from voting for a resolution during the Nov. 25, 2019 meeting, minutes show.
However, minutes from other meetings -- Jan. 27, 2020; Feb. 24, 2020; and March 26, 2020 -- reveal Martin voted for himself to get mileage reimbursement for four other cities, which could be considered a conflict of interest.
During a twelve-month stretch, he drove to and from Savannah, Georgia, then to and from Orlando, Florida in late October 2019.
In December, he drove to Phoenix and back.
All of those trips were considered medically necessary by car.
The next month – January 2020 – records show Martin flew to Hawaii for a conference.
When he returned, documents show it once again became medically necessary for him to drive to Las Vegas and Reno in February, then DC in March.
“He’s not violating any law. But I do want to emphasize, it does seem unethical in the sense that it doesn’t meet the efficiency standard. It is a waste of time, a waste of public resources, and has the unique feature of putting tax dollars in his own pocket for reimbursement for car travel,” Holman said.
We wanted to ask Martin about these trips ourselves, so we showed up to a JMAA board meeting last Thursday. Upon our arrival, Martin got up and paced around the room, then left.
A few minutes later, we were also told to leave.
Communications Director LSherie Dean told us we couldn’t cover the meeting inside the room, instead pointing to a designated area outside where we could watch it on a TV screen.
She later said it was because of COVID, but few people were even wearing masks during the meeting.
Dean also said we didn’t reach out to her first to get cleared ahead of time to be there, but that meeting is public. The JMAA board is a public agency.
Asking a member of the public to ask permission just to be able to attend would be a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
JMAA legal officer Steven Williams later told us that was a misunderstanding, and wanted to make clear that reporters and the public are always welcome at those meetings.
During our discussion, Chairman Martin began walking back into the meeting. What follows is a partial transcript of that interview.
Reporter: “Chairman Martin, can we talk to you after the meeting?”
Robert Martin: “No, sir.”
Reporter: “Not about anything, sir?”
Martin: “Uh, no. You – what do you want to talk to me about?”
Reporter: “Uhh, about travel, sir.”
Reporter: “No, sir. Travel.”
Reporter: “Your travel, yes, sir.”
Martin: “My travel? Okay, we’ll have a statement for you.”
At that point, Dean walked over to address our concerns.
Dean: “We’re in the midst of doing that now, with your public records request, so we’ll get that information to you.”
Reporter: “Right, but I want to speak about specific things that he has, in terms of his travel.”
Dean: “But that’s what the public records request is for. We’ll answer you in a public –”
Reporter: Yeah, but asking him to respond to trips traveled by car is something that he’d have to respond to outside of a request.”
Dean: “We will respond to you in a public records request.”
Reporter: “So he will not give any public–”
Dean: “We will respond to you in a public records request, all right? Appreciate it.”
That records request was for all of Martin’s reimbursements since he’s been on the airport board. Dean sent the contents of that request to WLBT minutes before this story aired Thursday night.
Martin also never produced the statement he said he’d give to us regarding those drives of his on the taxpayer’s dime.
We’ve asked whether the state auditor’s office is investigating this activity, but they can’t confirm or discuss potential or pending investigations.
Here’s something to consider, however: Martin never gave any evidence he actually drove to any of those cities, only submitting a Mapquest route showing the approximate mileage.
Travel records WLBT requested did not contain any odometer photos nor reimbursements to stay the night while he was driving to his destination on these two- and three-day excursions.
He did, however, have proof he stayed at the final destinations.
“This is very peculiar and and very suspicious activity. And it is incumbent upon those watchdog agencies to take a closer look at this. So I hope they are, in fact, investigating even if they may not be talking to you about it,” Holman said.
This isn’t the first time there have been questions about an airport commissioner’s travel.
Federal court filings allege JMAA terminated its former chief financial officer because she had tried to make sure all commissioners followed federal tax law in listing per diem payments they received on tax forms.
Two commissioners refused to complete their forms. Martin was one of them.
“We’re now talking about a airport authority that seems to have a culture of unethical behavior. And, you know, if there, if that is actually part of the culture within this authority, then abuses become more rampant because every commissioner knows they can actually get away with this,” Holman said.
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