3 On Your Side Investigates: Up in the Air

Questions about one airport commissioner’s residency could lead to further investigation
Published: Oct. 27, 2022 at 7:35 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Questions surrounding an airport board member’s residency could lead to his removal after a 3 On Your Side investigation found no evidence the man actually lived at an address he provided to be considered for the job nearly four years ago.

The questions have at least one city council member interested in investigating the matter thoroughly.

“We need to have people on the board who are honest,” Ward 3 Councilman Kenneth Stokes said.

Stokes doesn’t mince words when it comes to the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport and who controls it.

Six weeks ago, he explained those concerns during a city council budget discussion.

“Mr. President, I’m voting against the airport. I’m concerned about the direction that our airport is going in,” Stokes told the council in September.

He’s not the only one uncertain about the airport’s future.

Weeks after the city council confirmed Dr. Geraldine Chaney to the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority Board, she resigned without attending one meeting.

Her departure left the board once again with just three members at that point, the bare minimum needed to even hold a meeting.

In late July, Airport Commissioner Rickey Jones left after he had concerns regarding an item on the agenda he didn’t have time to read, yet was expected to vote on it.

When he left, the meeting could not continue.

The airport board would try to meet three different times - July 28, August 2, and August 10 - until it had a quorum on August 17.

“A lot of people, honest people not gonna want to be on a board or want to be around anything where there’s the appearance of impropriety,” Stokes said.

A Jackson city ordinance states that airport board members must live in Jackson to hold that position.

“Live where you say you live in your district. If you are in your ward, that’s fine. If you do not, resign. People do it all the time,” Stokes said.

At the time, Stokes only had rumors from people telling him that Commissioner Robert Martin did not actually live in Ward 4.

Martin had been the subject of a 3 On Your Side investigation in April when we unearthed a unique pattern in his travel: he drove thousands of miles to conferences instead of flying, including trips to Las Vegas, Reno, and Phoenix.

The travel ended up costing taxpayers three times more than if he had flown, approximately $9,300 over a twelve-month period.

At the time, Martin told the board he had a medical condition that prevented him from flying commercially.

Documents obtained by 3 On Your Side question whether that’s entirely true.

A past airmen registry record from the Federal Aviation Administration shows when Martin got his pilot’s license renewed last year, the medical information they used to approve him came from July 2020, a few months after he claimed to the JMAA board he couldn’t fly as a passenger.

One central Mississippi doctor - who decides whether prospective pilots can be medically cleared to fly - said that’s a tough sell.

“If they’re not going to fly commercially, why is it they can be a pilot? It doesn’t quite make sense to me,” Dr. David Wheat said.

When asked if there’s a medical exception that would work in both situations, Dr. Wheat said he couldn’t think of one.

“If you can pass a medical, you ought to be able to fly commercially,” Dr. Wheat said.

In Martin’s case, he received a “first class” medical certification - the highest level - which qualifies pilots to be able to work for an airline and transport passengers and cargo.

Years ago, Martin worked for Mesa Airlines as a first officer, according to a resume he submitted to the city in 2018.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba nominated him to be an airport board member and the council unanimously confirmed him for the position.

For nearly three years, Martin has represented to the council and the public that he lives in Jackson.

That resume and other documents WLBT obtained from the airport board list his address as 5743 Wyndallwood Court, which is in Ward 4.

Our news crew went to the home and knocked on the door in an attempt to talk to Martin.

A few minutes later, someone arrived at the home: Emanuel Sterling, whose mother actually lives at the residence.

“Only the Sterlings live here. Only. I don’t know anybody named Martin or Robert or anything of that nature,” Sterling said. “There’s a set of woods back there. He can live back there. But he can’t stay here. I don’t know who he is. Whoever Martin is, you barking up the wrong tree.”

3 On Your Side showed Sterling the documents that contained his mother’s address - from Martin’s resume to a letter to the JMAA board in 2020 informing them of his medical condition and need to drive to Phoenix.

Sterling shook his head in disbelief.

“I want to find out who he is, because my mom’s safety is my top priority. I take that very seriously,” Sterling said.

Where does Martin actually live?

Could be Brandon, according to information WLBT uncovered.

Documents filed with the Secretary of State in 2020 and 2021 list the Brandon location as his address.

Rankin County deed records show the same Twin Oaks Drive home is owned by his wife.

Our crews even passed by his house several times over the last few months, not seeing Martin, but seeing his vehicle out front each time.

“I’ve heard these things about he got married and a wife lives in Rankin County, but he has a house in, in Jackson, you know,” Stokes said. “That sends the message to the people that you’re not truthful.”

WLBT sent emails to JMAA multiple times to be able to talk to Martin and ask him about his status as a pilot and his residency.

Those requests, sent to the airport’s director of communications, LSherie Dean, were never specifically addressed.

Dean responded Thursday morning, hours before this investigation aired, with a lengthy statement.

“JMAA is aware of the allegations regarding a member of the Board of Commissioners. As this is a potential legal matter, JMAA has no specific comment at this time,” Dean wrote.

Dean mentioned three new members of the board that have been welcomed over the last year - Rickey Jones, Rica Lewis-Payton, and Warren Herring.

“The Board is laser-focused on strategic governance of the organization. Governmental, legal, ethical, and fiscal compliance are of paramount importance to this renewed Board and to the Staff of JMAA. When compliance issues or irregularities arise, the Board raises those to appropriate authorities and will continue to do so in a diligent and forthright manner,” Dean said.

Months before that statement, however, records obtained from JMAA show the agency has decided against disclosing the addresses of every one of the board’s commissioners, including Martin’s.

3 On Your Side has argued that information is public, especially since airport commissioners have a legal requirement to live in Jackson.

Shouldn’t their addresses be visible to prove that residency?

The airport board’s attorneys don’t think so.

Airport Legal Officer Steven Williams initially said commissioners were employees and their addresses are exempt personnel records, then conceded the opposite, that they are not employees of JMAA.

JMAA’s law firm argues the addresses are exempt from state law because they’re personnel records, briefly citing privacy concerns.

WLBT has filed a public records complaint against JMAA for violating state law.

Council President Ashby Foote said because of the legal battle in federal court over who will control the airport in the future, JMAA or a regional board, everything airport leadership does now will be under extra scrutiny.

“Doesn’t speak to a healthy work environment, when you have four CEOs. And over a period of four or five years, there’s been a number of personnel lawsuits against the airport board, which speaks to uncertainty about the work environment for the personnel at the airport,” Foote said. “My first step would be to ask the administration, the city administration, for details on this and a full explanation of what the situation is, whether it’s misinformation, whether it’s accurate, and what the airport board and the administration plans to do in response to that.”

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