Doug Kuepers, who served the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport Commission for about 10 years, resigned Tuesday.
Kuepers said in order to ensure the integrity of future decisions regarding the airport he was tendering his resignation immediately. The commission accepted the resignation with regret.
The commission met at the airport Tuesday in a meeting devoted entirely to the conflict of interest issue to consider recommendations from the city of Brainerd. And beyond the conflict of interest issue raised recently, the board heard of an earlier conflict in 2000.
Brainerd city attorney Tom Fitzpatrick previously concluded there was a conflict of interest regarding Kuepers’ position as an airport commission member and his company’s involvement as a subcontractor on the airport’s current terminal remodeling project. Kuepers Inc. of Baxter is providing construction management services as a subcontractor to Short Elliott Hendrickson.
Kuepers’ resignation came after the airport commission first heard from its own independent legal review and after a commission vote to resolve it.
“You’ve been nothing but a fine commissioner,” said airport commission member Brad Davis. “There has been no self interest that I have ever detected, quite the opposite. ... I think this commission erred by not being aware of this paperwork that needed to get done. And that was shame on all of us and I think it’s a tragic thing that you take the brunt of it because you are no more or less to blame than any of us sitting at this table.”
Attorney Patrick Krueger, Brainerd, was retained for the airport commission’s independent review of the conflict of interest.
Krueger said Kuepers Inc.’s contract for professional services is exempt from the state statute that defines and prohibits conflicts of interest but the exception only applies if the commission votes unanimously to authorize the contract and Kuepers provides an affidavit of interest or disclosure and files it with the commission’s clerk.
“There has to be a resolution adopted by the commission,” Krueger said. “... The question is can you do this after the fact. It is not after the fact.”
Because the contract is in the performance stage and not yet completed, Krueger said it was his opinion the remedy was not after the fact.
“I think this whole thing is going to hinge on that point,” said Crow Wing County Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom, county liaison to the commission. She asked Krueger to explain his position more fully.
Krueger said state law says the contract cannot be completed and then the commission come back and execute its consent.
“The contract has not been completed,” Krueger said. “It has not been performed. Therefore in my opinion, it is valid for the commission to do this now.”
Tuesday Kuepers provided the affidavit and the commission voted unanimously to accept it and authorize payment pursuant to the contract, with Kuepers abstaining.
Nystrom said it was important to note if the airport commission didn’t handle things correctly it was not an attempt to do anything malicious or to defraud or deceive people. Krueger said the appearance of conflict is also something that has to be watched for and should be in the forefront of the commissioner’s minds for every contract.
Nystrom said the entire issue has been in the spotlight and examined, which she said isn’t saying is a bad thing, but Nystrom said she was sorry for Kuepers.
“You have been in the electric chair because I consider you to be an admirable and contributing member of this airport commission,” Nystrom said. “I think you have walked through this with a lot of dignity.”
In addition to the contract with SEH, Krueger said Steve Sievek, airport manager, asked him to review an earlier construction contract between the airport and Kuepers Inc. that took place 11 years ago.
Krueger said that contract was a conflict of interest. The 2000 contract was for $298,936 to remodel the general aviation building. Kuepers Inc. was the low bidder and completed the project.
The statute of limitation has since expired on the 2000 conflict, Krueger said. He said the work was performed satisfactorily and the airport would not have been entitled to money back even if the conflict of interest has been caught within a year.
After Krueger completed his report, Kuepers read from a prepared statement, saying he learned Thursday the contract in August of 2000 was a conflict. Kuepers said at the time, in an effort to save costs, a design/build contract was entered instead of engaging the company’s engineering firm for design services.
“At no time was there any intention on my part or on the part of my fellow commissioners to create a conflict of interest; I don’t know why it wasn’t considered — obviously, an oversight. Nevertheless, it should have been addressed.
“I have enjoyed my tenure as an airport commissioner. I have tried only to improve the services offered to the air traveler and in doing so improve the communities we serve. During my tenure we have made many improvement in our buildings and services and there will be many decisions to be made in the future to ensure the continued improvement of those facilities and services. In order to ensure the integrity of those future decisions, I hereby tender my resignation from the commission, effective immediately.”
Beth Pfingsten, airport commission chairwoman, said it was a privilege to serve with Kuepers. “I feel you have been drug through the mud,” she said. “I’m very sad that this is a decision you’ve had to make.”
Kevin Goedker, Brainerd City Council member and liaison to the airport commission said he would still recommend Kuepers as the best qualified candidate for the position but the resignation was the most honorable way to handle the situation and will help the airport move on.
“I really hate to see you go,” said commission member Rick Adair.
In regard to adopting a conflict of interest policy, Krueger advised against it saying the rules are already on the books now. But Krueger said the airport commission should have an annual training seminar on the conflicts of interest statute, updates and court interpretations.
“I think you have to be aware of it. Perhaps you weren’t. I think it’s an awareness issue,” Krueger said. “... The statute is clear. It’s broad. In my mind I don’t know that a policy is going to do anything but further muddy the water.”
Pfingsten asked Nystrom if Krueger’s review met the Crow Wing County Board’s earlier motion for independent review. Nystrom said she didn’t know as the board’s motion was “vague to the point of being mysterious.” Nystrom said she believed the county board’s point was not to have the issue take forever, which was the airport commission’s hope as well.
Also Tuesday, Brainerd City Council member Bob Olson delivered a copy of a letter to the Dispatch. The letter, dated May 28 and addressed to Crow Wing County Attorney Don Ryan, requested copies of all correspondence between the county attorney’s office and the airport commission regarding the 2000 remodeling project. Olson also requested case law and state law used to show there was no legal ramification in awarding the bid to Kuepers as was noted in a copy Olson provided of the June 12, 2000, airport minutes.
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5852.