THE BLOG

A Wall Street Kind of Scandal on Lexington Ky's Main Street

02/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Bring it on home to me"

-Sam Cooke

Since much of Wall Street is now funded by taxpayer dollars, we get outraged when CEOs throw money around like it is coming out of their own pocket.

Some give themselves multi-million dollar bonuses, fly around on private jets and act like they are not accountable to anyone.

Some of us are yelling loudly. It's taken a while, but we are forcing the Wall Street fat cats to listen.

Wall Street big shots were slow to pick up on how the public perceived their outlandish behavior. They had gotten away with it for so long that they just didn't see their actions as wrong.

Washington and some journalists didn't get it either. I've watched commentators try to defend some really indefensible Wall Street behavior.

Their regulatory and journalistic vision was blurred because they were reporting on people they knew.

I understand completely.

It's easy to rip into guys like Hank Paulsen and Ben Bernanke, whom I have never met. It's a lot harder to go off on someone I will run into in the grocery store.

Thus, it has taken me a few weeks to get my arms around a scandal in Central Kentucky, where I live.

Starting in late November, the Lexington Herald Leader uncovered massive wrongdoing at the Lexington airport.

An audit showed that the director, who has since resigned, spent thousands of dollars on personal items, lavish trips and stuff that would make an AIG sales conference look tame.

He and two employees spent over $5,000 in a Dallas strip club. It appears that at least four of his staff members had the same spending habits as their boss. The Herald Leader noted $332,000 in credit card charges that four airport executives ran up in three years.

My favorite expenditure was $2,200 to a ticket scalper for tickets to see Hannah Montana's concert in Lexington's Rupp arena.

The city of Lexington and the state of Kentucky both have laws against ticket scalping. The next time I want to dump some basketball or concert tickets, I won't peddle them on the street corner and pray not to get caught. I'll just call the airport.

The Lexington Herald Leader dug up the scandal. The paper's stories prompted the Vice-Mayor, the city council and the Kentucky state auditor to investigate.

Each day the paper reports a story more horrifying than the last one.

Several politicians, most notably Lexington's Mayor, have been very slow to react to the scandal.

I understand their reluctance. Some of the members of the Lexington Airport Board are the Mayor's appointees. All the board members have friendships throughout city government. Some of the board members are MY friends. I don't want them to be embarrassed or, possibly, go to jail.

I keep hoping there is a logical explanation for all of this. So far, I have not seen one.

The Lexington scandal helped me understand why some in the big city media were going easy on the Wall Street mess, while people like me, living in the heartland, are going absolutely crazy about their excesses.

It's hard to go off on your friends. For a journalist, ripping someone might cost you a friend or a source. For a politician, it's even worse. A friend turned enemy will work to make sure you never get elected again.

It's easier to duck your head in the sand and hope it all goes away.

But there is a time when friendship stops and public responsibility begins. With a scandal in my backyard, I have to take a step back and have the proper perspective.

When I step back, the Lexington story gets even uglier. Especially when I compare it to the Wall Street outrages of the past few months.

Eliot Spitzer was forced out of office for hiring a prostitute. He didn't use public money to pay her.

Three top guys at the Lexington airport spent $5,000 in a Dallas strip club and charged it to the airport credit card.

The airport is supported by federal dollars and airport user fees. You and I paid for the strippers. And we didn't even get a lap dance.

When the Lexington Herald Leader uncovered the scandal, it noted that airport executive director, Mike Gobb, spent hundreds of thousands on trips and lavish living, including a $26,000 trip to Hawaii.

Gobb spent more on his trip to Hawaii than Rick Wagoner, the head of General Motors, spent for his famous private jet flight to Washington.

Wagoner didn't use taxpayer dollars to fly to Washington. GM shareholders paid for the flight, supporting his attempt to beg for taxpayer dollars.

A subtle, but distinct, difference.

As part of the $332,000 that the airport executives spent, some was spent on golf lessons and expensive toys. They had fancy dinners all over the place, including several at a restaurant owned by the Chairman of the Airport Board.

The same guy who oversees their expenses.

Can you imagine the story if the chief executives at AIG or Citigroup spent taxpayers' money in a restaurant owned by their chief watchdog?

The Huffington Post would run screaming headlines. For weeks on end.

In Kentucky, we have a scandal on our hands --.as outrageous, deep-seated and insidious as the one on Wall Street.

If we are going to clean up Wall Street and Main Street, we need to call people out when they get out of line. No matter at what level they operate.

I'll be seeing some of the airport people around town. It won't be fun.

On the other hand, I can't keep bashing on Wall Street if I ignore my friends on Main Street.

There is a point where public responsibility overcomes personal discomfort.

That's a lesson I hope our leaders in Washington, Wall Street and Main Street begin to understand.

Don McNay, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, CSSC is the founder of McNay Settlement Group in Richmond, Kentucky. He is an award winning, syndicated financial columnist and the author of two books. You can write to him at don@donmcnay.com or read his previous columns at www.donmcnay.com. Don is Treasurer of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.