Robin Turner, the veteran Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport manager, leveled some serious accusations in a lawsuit against his former employers.
Turner said he lost his most recent gig as a part-time assistant manager because he blew the whistle on a sweetheart lease between the airport board and Aviation Dreams owner — and current airport board member — Gary Peters. If so, that would constitute a violation of Idaho’s whistle blower protection act.
Turner also claimed Nez Perce County Sheriff Joe Rodriguez subjected him to a political prosecution. After Lewiston police investigated and closed the case on a report that Turner engaged in a sexual tryst on the second floor of the airport, Rodriguez personally filed a charge. It became apparent the sheriff lacked convincing evidence, so prosecutors dismissed it. If Turner’s right, it would suggest Rodriguez relied on hearsay and conjecture.
All of this occurred within the context of constant churning and commotion at Lewiston’s airport. The operation blew through five managers or interim managers in as many years, endured a cycle of departures from a dysfunctional airport board, lost a carrier offering westbound flights and access to Boise and was at some point at odds with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Turner’s lawsuit will not go to trial. There will be no witness testimony and no scrutiny of evidence to verify or dispute his claims.
The next best clue is whether any money exchanged hands.
For instance, if Turner agreed to walk away with $5,000 or $10,000, then his was likely a nuisance lawsuit. The defense could either spend the money on lawyers or pay Turner to go away.
If Turner got something in the neighborhood of $20,000 or $30,000, that could mean the defendants were weighing not only their prospects in court, but how an open trial subjecting Rodriguez, Peters and other airport officials to withering courtroom cross-examination would go over with the public.
And if Turner got a good deal more, then you’d be wise to assume the defense simply capitulated in the face of overwhelming facts.
In other words, in an out-of-court settlement, money talks.
It talked in the case of former Idaho Transportation Department Director Pam Lowe, who got a $750,000 check from a state that chose not to wage a defense against her allegations that gender discrimination and crony capitalism led to her termination.
It talked in the case of former Idaho Department of Labor purchasing agent James Cryer, who collected a $545,000 settlement after accusing the agency of exposing him as a whistleblower and then firing him.
It talked in the case of Lourdes Matsumoto, a former deputy legal counsel in the State Controller’s Office. She collected an $83,000 settlement in her sexual harassment lawsuit.
At least give the state of Idaho this much credit: When it settles one of these cases, it discloses the amount of money that changes hands. By any reasonable standard, this information ought to come out. After all, it involves a public institution spending tax dollars.
But until recently, it was not uncommon to see some officials at the local level attempt to conceal such arrangements. For instance, an eastern Idaho school district sought to hide a $105,000 severance package with a departing superintendent by sliding it into his personnel file. Only after citizen activists and the Idaho Falls Post Register went to the trouble of going to court was that information disclosed under the public records act.
Fortunately, that does not seem likely in Turner’s case. Nearly two years ago, state Sen. Mary Souza, R- Coeur d’Alene, sponsored legislation spelling out that “bonuses, severance packages, other compensation or vouchered and unvouchered expenses for which reimbursement was paid” is covered by the public records law and subject to disclosure.
Its unanimous passage in both houses of the Legislature was barely noticed. At the time, it was more of a story in the Panhandle and eastern Idaho.
But given their legitimate public interest in learning the final details of the Turner dispute, the people of Lewiston and Nez Perce County may want to send Souza a thank-you note. — M.T.