The Friendly Skies
It's a long way from Centennial Airport to Altoona, Pennsylvania. The miles would pass quickly if you could hop a plane and fly there, of course--but Centennial doesn't have any commercial flights. Not to Altoona, and not to anywhere else.
These days, the airport doesn't even have FAA funding. But while it may be a long way from Centennial to the Pennsylvania home of Representative Bud Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, political connections have a way of making distances disappear. Five-term Colorado congressman Joel Hefley may not sit on the transportation committee, but our state's most consistently silent representative--here at home, at least--can still make Shuster sit up and take notice. Because Hefley heads the subcommittee that's been investigating "the matter of Rep. Bud Shuster" for thirty months now.
The matter is messy. Talk of possible improprieties by Shuster and lobbyist Ann Eppard--his former aide "and family friend for more than a quarter of a century," Shuster says, in explaining her overnights at his home--was already spilling into the papers in the fall of 1996, when the Congressional Accountability Project filed a formal complaint with the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The citizens' group wanted the ethics committee to determine if Shuster had violated House rules by not only accepting illegal gifts, but intervening with federal agencies on behalf of a campaign donor and Altoona businessman who just happened to be a business partner of Shuster's sons.
And there was more, much more. So much, in fact, that this year Hefley's subcommittee said it was expanding the scope of the ethics probe. Not that Hefley will discuss where that expanded scope will take the investigation--or what, if anything, it has found. That's confidential, he says.
The long silence doesn't sit well with Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project. Back in November 1997, he wrote Hefley and urged the congressman to hire an outside counsel to work on Shuster's case, as has been done in nearly half of the 48 ethics investigations involving U.S. representatives, including Newt Gingrich. "You have been placed in an untenable and unenviable position: The Member you are charged with investigating has substantial power over you, your constituents, and perhaps your own political career," Ruskin said.
But Hefley declined to hire an independent investigator then, and he still insists he doesn't have a conflict with Shuster.
And why would he? Shuster's doing everything Hefley wants.
In the spring of 1998, Shuster's transportation committee was to decide whether Hefley's district would get the $9 million it wanted to widen I-25 from Douglas County down to Colorado Springs, his hometown. Although Hefley abstained from the vote, his district got the money.
This week, the House is debating another Shuster transportation bill, a major aviation package. Hefley has a stake in this, too: a provision that would allow the Centennial Airport Authority, rather than the FAA, to decide who flies into the airport--and who doesn't.
Centennial is not that far from Altoona, after all.
Although the Shuster scandals make the spats in Denver's southern suburbs seem like amateur hour, rumors have been flying about Centennial Airport for years. Those inside the thirty-year-old facility worry that the rich folks now living around it, especially in hoity-toity Greenwood Village, want to do away with the airport altogether, perhaps by annexing it, perhaps by blocking federal funding until the airport itself disappears. Residents on the outside regard Centennial as the evil commercial equivalent of Area 57: If the aliens don't come, then big jetliners surely will, drowning out backyard-barbecue chitchat and sending property values into a tailspin. "Certain interests want to turn Centennial Airport into 'DIA South'," warns one flier sent out by Residents for Noise Free Neighborhoods.
Michael Boyd, the Golden-based aviation consultant who scoffed at DIA, scoffs even louder at Centennial's foes. The specter of commercial service "is so meaningless an issue, it's so impossible," he says. "They might as well panic about Centennial becoming a seaport."
But Greenwood Village spares no expense in preserving the sanctity of its bedroom community. Last year the town helped fund the efforts of Capital Partnerships, a D.C. lobbying firm, to snag Douglas County's highway money. (Capital contributed to both Shuster's and Hefley's campaigns.) Now Greenwood Village is paying other lobbyists--$600,000 so far this year--to fight expanded flights into Centennial. This is not a new crusade for the town: It led the charge against John Andrews, the Texan who tried for over a decade to deliver passenger service through Centennial Airlines. And two years ago, Greenwood Village took on United Airlines pilot Art Ziccardi, who wanted to start a charter-on-demand service at Centennial that fell neatly within FAA regulations.
If Ziccardi's plan was blocked, the FAA warned, Centennial could lose federal funding. But residents continued to complain to anyone who would listen, and the Airport Authority--Centennial is owned jointly by Douglas and Arapahoe counties--heard them loud and clear. So did the feds: After the authority turned down Ziccardi, the FAA cut off Centennial's airport-improvement funds.
The loss of an estimated $1.6 million annually (Centennial had collected about $30 million from the FAA over the years) worries those running businesses at Centennial, the country's second-largest general-aviation facility, which was originally built to service the Denver Tech Center crowd. Mayo Aviation moved to Centennial after Stapleton shut down, and owner Gwen Mayo has heard all the rumors about commercial planes. "Let's face it," she says. "We have three runways here, only one of which is suitable for larger business planes, 75,000 pounds. That limit doesn't even allow the biggest of the business aircraft." Much less the smallest of the commercial aircraft.
Without FAA improvement funds, though, it may be difficult to maintain even the airport's current level of service. "We're paying in effect through our fuel purchases [21 percent on a gallon of jet fuel] and the ticket tax [8 percent of charter fees]," says Mayo. "When the feds withhold that, we aren't getting our money."
The last project funded by FAA money was a noise study, to determine how Centennial flight paths could work around the expensive new houses now springing up overnight. But you don't need a study to realize that it's easier to silence the planes than it is to silence Greenwood Village.
If Hefley's addition to the aviation bill survives this week's debate, it will give local governments, such as the Airport Authority, powers now held by the FAA. But it will also restore Centennial's FAA funding. The feds won't be happy, but Hefley's noisy constituents back in Colorado will have what they want.
Hefley's colleagues at the Capitol already do. In 1997, the House voted to change the rules for ethics investigations. No longer can citizens' groups bring complaints on their own, no matter how well-founded; they have to get a letter from a House member. And so far, no representative has been willing to write such a letter.
They may be even more reluctant after Hefley receives his second letter from Gary Ruskin, dated June 14 and outlining the conflicts inherent in the Centennial situation. "To date, the defining characteristic of the Ethics committee's investigation of chairman Shuster is torpor," Ruskin concluded. "It is time--finally--to appoint outside counsel."
Ruskin's group filed their complaint against Shuster before the new rules took effect. Those rules were written by a D.C. attorney who represents Ann Eppard, the former Shuster aide and "family friend" who's a central figure in Hefley's investigation.
The shortest distance between two points is a political connection.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.