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Members are divided in wake of recorded phone call.
The Kenton County Airport Board voted Wednesday to hire special counsel to independently investigate the alleged wiretapping detailed in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
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File photo of CVG airport; Michael Benedic | WCPO
A general view of CVG airport in Northern Kentucky.
HEBRON, Ky. – The Kenton County Airport Board voted Wednesday to hire special counsel to independently investigate the alleged wiretapping detailed in a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
The board—which runs the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport—broke into executive session Wednesday afternoon just after a heated debate on whether or not to even go into a closed-door meeting to vote on the issue.
Airport board Chairman James Huff and his wife Bertha, are suing airport employee, Carol Spaw, alleging she violated federal wiretap laws by recording a call he inadvertently made with his cell phone.
Huff said in the statement that he is calling for an independent investigation of the allegations: "We need to determine exactly what happened and who was involved."
Board members O’dell Owens and Nathan Smith lashed out at board members who wanted to move the meeting behind closed doors to discuss the matter.
“Pull back the curtain and let the people know what's going on,” said Smith. “I don't know why we would go into executive season to hide this from the people… and spend more taxpayer money.”
Owens, president of Cincinnati State Technical and Community College and Smith, partner with SSK Communities, are not members of the executive committee and did not get a vote in the executive session on the matter. But that didn’t stop them from giving their opinions prior to the session to the rest of the board.
“The airport would have to pay for (Huff’s) lawsuit,” argued Owens. “Let that play out.”
“We’re really going to catch hell for that. I'm not taking a bullet for anyone in this room. This is out of control,” he continued.
“I'm not going to let you put a bullet in my heart,” said Owens who continued that he is on the board for the people of Cincinnati, not for the board to like him—stating that he wishes he could resign.
“It's infringing upon my reputation to be associated with people on this board,” continued Owens.
Kenton County Judge Executive Steve Arlinghaus called the entire matter disconcerting.
“It’s an embarrassment to all of us, the region and the community,” said Arlinghaus, who appoints the seven-member executive committee. “If the allegations are true, that’s a real problem.”
Huff, a member of the executive committee, alleges in the lawsuit that Spaw recorded a 91-minute call he mistakenly made with his cell phone to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport's administrative offices while on a board-related trip to Italy on October 24.
Spaw, an employee of CVG for 18 years, is CEO Candace McGraw’s administrative assistant, who has recently been under fire by the airport board.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Kentucky, alleges Spaw violated federal wiretap laws when she recorded the call, then transcribed the tape and disseminated the transcript—which included not only a conversation between Huff and his wife, but also Huff and fellow board member Larry Savage, also on the executive committee.
Spaw's attorney Randy Freking, said Spaw was adhering to the board's rules and regulations and the lawsuit is 'ridiculous' and no more than retaliation for whistleblowing — which is illegal to sue over in Kentucky.
"They called her and she wasn't sure what to do... she overheard two board members' plans to try and oust Mrs. McGraw," said Freking.
During the conversation, Huff and Savage, the vice chairman of the airport board, talked about demoting McGraw and replacing her with Savage as CEO.
“(The call) indicated inappropriate conduct of board members and she reported it to her boss immediately," said Freking of Spaw who reported the phone call to McGraw.
From there, Freking said, McGraw turned it over to Audit Committee Chairman Frank Kling, who resigned from the board on Sunday. Both Savage and Huff are the only other board members on the Audit Committee.
Arlinghaus said that while he only found out about the lawsuit Tuesday, Kling gave him documentation on Nov. 1 to read over. But, he said, that he couldn’t be sure what he was reading.
“I don’t know the authenticity of that document. It was unclear… anyone can put a document together and say, ‘Here, read this.’”
“I cannot even tell you the true content of the conversation,” said Arlinghaus. “I glanced at it and gave it back.”
Without further examination, Arlinghaus did not read about the details of the private conversation as Huff laid out in the suit.
In a statement released by his lawyer, Huff said: "Most disturbing is the fact that my private conversations with my wife in our hotel bedroom were also listened to and recorded by airport staff. My wife and I have filed suit to protect our rights."
"...Spaw answered the accidental phone call...and eavesdropped on the private, face-to-face conversations,'' the suit alleges. Further, it says Spaw "acting in concert with others, transcribed select portions of the private, face-to-face conversations."
After the 'private' phone call, Huff called Spaw from his cell phone, who at no time, according to the lawsuit, informed Huff that she had eavesdropped on or recorded the prior phone call detailing plans to oust her boss.
This isn’t the first time that board members have been called out for trying to remove McGraw from her chair as CEO.
Back in August, some board members discussed McGraw’s fate in a closed-to-the-public executive session, which was called to discuss personnel matters. However, Huff has denied that the discussion was to oust the CEO.
The board, Huff admitted in August, discussed better communication between McGraw and the board, but that no votes were cast and no action was taken during the closed-door meeting.
“You have to have a board and CEO [who] work together on everything and have to coordinate and that’s all we’re working on. Same page. Same step,” said Huff. “[There are] bumps in the road… [We’re] trying to make everything smooth.”
As for the board’s decision to further investigate the alleged recording and transcripts of private phone calls, Arlinghaus stands behind the board.
“We need to support their decision. That’s why they’re the board, to keep politics out of it.”
Board members Paul McElhinney and John Mocker were given the authority to hire counsel, after four executive committee members voted in favor of the decision. Two voting members, Huff and Savage abstained and the seventh voting member, Kling, resigned Sunday. The board did not decide when they would hire or how much it would cost.
Per Kentucky's Freedom of Information Act, WCPO has filed requests with the airport for the recordings and transcripts detailed in the lawsuit.
Current Kenton County Airport Board Members
• Chairman — James Huff, Huff Realty (Executive Committee member)
• Vice Chair — Larry Savage, Regional CEO, Humana Inc. (Executive Committee member)
• Dorothy H. Air, Associate Senior Vice President, Entrepreneurial Affairs, University of Cincinnati
• Mark G. Arnzen, Principal, Arnzen, Molloy & Storm (Executive Committee member)
• James A. Berger, Executive Vice President, Chas. Bilz Insurance Co.
• Kevin W. Canafax, Vice President of Public Affairs-Midwest Region, Fidelity Investments
• Kathy Collins, Vice President Private Banking, Fifth Third Bank
• Merwin Grayson Jr., President, Central Bank of Northern Kentucky
• Franklin S. Kling Jr., CEO & Chairman, FK Holdings Inc. (Executive Committee member—resigned as of Sunday)
• Timothy S. Mauntel, Retired Senior Vice President, Morgan Stanley (Executive Committee member)
• Paul A. McElhinney, President & CEO, GE Aviation – Services (Executive Committee member)
• John A. Mocker Jr., Vice President & Partner, LB Industries Inc. (Executive Committee member)
• O’dell M. Owens, M.D., M.P.H., President, Cincinnati State Technical & Community College
• Nathaniel G. Smith, Partner, SSK Communities
• Paul T. Verst, President & CEO, Verst Group Logistics
• Robert Zapp, President, Bank of Kentucky
WCPO reporter Tom McKee contributed to this report.