Former Indy airport CEO reboots at Gary

2013-05-18T20:00:00Z 2014-02-27T20:35:33Z Former Indy airport CEO reboots at GaryKeith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com

November was a busy month for John Clark at the Gary/Chicago International Airport.

One day, he spent five hours straight at City Hall talking to representatives of major investment banks from all over the world. Other days he was on the phone with a $170 billion global hedge fund. And on others he was chatting with the development firm of Chicago real estate baron Elzie Higginbottom.

On the side, he helped kick-start lease renewal negotiations with Boeing Corp., tried to scare up more passenger airline service and patiently sat through six hours of Airport Authority meetings.

He has been just as busy in his 12 other months working for the airport, according to billing records obtained by The Times under an Access to Public Records request.

His hectic Gary airport schedule represents a career rebooting of sorts for the 52-year-old Clark, whose employment as CEO of Indianapolis International Airport ended abruptly in March 2012.

The parting of ways came one week after the Indianapolis Business Journal reported Clark and two key airport deputies spent more than $67,000 in airport money on business travel in 2011, including extended trips to Brazil, Denmark, Greece, Morocco and Switzerland.

Safe landing in Gary

The Gary Airport Authority moved quickly to hire Clark as soon as he had left the Indianapolis job, granting him a $350-per-hour consulting contract capped at $5,000 per month in April 2012. Six months later, the authority upped the monthly cap to $10,000 while lowering the per-hour fee to $245. In April this year, a joint airport/city committee signed Clark to a performance-based contract that could net him $500,000 or more by this fall — if he can land a public-private partnership deal for the airport.

JClark Aviation was the only firm considered for those jobs. For the public-private partnership deal, firms also were hired for public relations, financial management and legal advice without any formal request for proposals issued.

Clark's work under the public-private partnership contract has the potential to affect the airport's flight path for decades to come. With just two scheduled passenger flights per week, everyone admits the airport just outside Chicago has never achieved its potential and desperately needs a new direction.

"I think Gary is in an ideal situation," Clark said during a recent interview at Gary Airport Authority offices. "But it takes more than being in an ideal situation. It takes leadership. It takes understanding what drives the economy of aviation. It takes creating a cooperative environment. It takes bringing in a healthy level of competition. It takes know-how."

At a height of 5 feet 4 inches and a build once described as like “a cinderblock,” Clark is someone who has always punched above his weight in the aviation industry.

In Jacksonville, Fla., he started as a deputy director at its port authority in 1991 and rose to become CEO of its six airports, tripling his pay in the process. Accolades while at Indianapolis included being named 2011 Airport Director of the Year by Aviation Revenue News magazine.

At Gary Airport Authority meetings, Clark wears an all-business demeanor, dark suits and crisply polished, tasseled loafers. He peers at authority members on the other side of the table over the tops of eyeglasses worn low on his nose, with just a few papers arranged in front of him.

He is concise. He easily communicates his broad knowledge of the industry. Occasionally, he'll lean back in his chair with a bemused smile as one of his points is beaten back or is not well taken by authority members.

Pay overages rankle official

The only hiccups so far in Clark's relationship with the Gary Airport Authority have come in relation to his pay.

Just after Clark's contract received a 4-0 vote of approval from airport authority members in April 2012, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson expressed surprise at his $350-per-hour rate and said: “That certainly does not sound correct.”

However, she remained firm in her support of Clark, acknowledging he was hired by the Airport Authority at her direction.

At an Airport Authority meeting in late February, authority member Nikki Thorn sharply questioned why Clark's pay had exceeded the $10,000 maximum stipulated for four straight months.

She was told by authority President Nathaniel Williams that Clark had been given “new tasks.” Williams said he had approved the extra payments.

“My concern is the airport is paying over and above what is in the contract,” said Thorn, who was appointed to the authority this year by the Porter County Board of Commissioners.

Billing records obtained by the Times under an Access to Public Records request show under the amended contract, the airport paid JClark Aviation $12,374 in October, $14,173 in November, $12,127 in December and $12,789 in January. In addition, JClark Aviation picked up $3,738 more in October under the previous contract.

It's not the first time questions have come up about Clark's pay, compensation and reimbursements.

Past controversies

Near the end of his tenure as CEO of the Jacksonville Aviation Authority in Florida from 2001 to 2009, Clark found himself at odds with the city council, unions and the media.

The city's alternative publication, Folio Weekly, once ran a caricature of Clark riding an airliner and throwing $100 bills to the wind with the headline “Has John Clark Gone Rogue?”

The article focused on a lavish $16,939 retirement party thrown for Clark's longtime executive assistant, his frequent overseas trips to major world cities including Shanghai, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires and Brussels, and his $241,000 salary.

After Clark left Jacksonville to take up the post of CEO at Indianapolis International Airport, the Florida state attorney's office undertook an extensive investigation of five separate complaints regarding Clark and airport expenditures. Those included alleged airport expenditures on the retirement party, the purchase of more than $1 million in artwork for Jacksonville International Airport and a contract award to a Clark ally.

In every case, investigators found there was either insufficient evidence or simply no basis for bringing any type of criminal charges, according to a case closing memo obtained by The Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Clark said controversies during a long tenure like his at Jacksonville are not unusual.

All his expenses for trips were approved by the board of the Jacksonville Airport Authority, he said. And all had the object of promoting regional economic development and closing deals for the airport.

"In my span of leadership, I think I have been investigated by every possible agency out there and never has there been any finding of wrongdoing," he said.

But it didn't take local media in Indianapolis long to pick up the ball when Clark came there in April 2009 to serve as CEO of Indianapolis International Airport.

Fast times after Super Bowl

There, Channel 13 WTHR-TV in September 2010 reported Clark had been arrested on a reckless driving charge in the early morning hours of Feb. 8 when he was clocked at 135 mph in his 2002 Porsche on Interstate 95. It was just hours after he had attended the Super Bowl in Miami between the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts.

Clark eventually pleaded no contest. In return, the court withheld adjudication, placed him on six months of probation and levied a fine.

An Indianapolis International Airport Authority member told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that Clark had apologized to the authority board for any distractions caused by the incident and remained in the board's complete confidence.

It also came out in the media that the Indianapolis Airport Authority had paid $4,500 for five Super Bowl tickets for Clark and airline reps and $1,300 more for his hotel costs.

Past is past for Gary leaders

At Gary, the Airport Authority is aware of the controversies that have dogged Clark in the past, according to David Bochnowski, a Munster banker who was appointed to the authority in January. He said for someone with Clark's accomplishments, controversy is not unusual.

“If you are successful you put a spotlight on yourself, but there are those who don't appreciate success,” Bochnowski said.

Bochnowski also heads the public-private partnership committee that recommended Clark for his most recent airport contract.

Mayor Freeman-Wilson said she first made Clark's acquaintance a couple of years ago when she was studying the expansion that had taken place at Indianapolis International Airport.

“I talked with John Clark. I talked with him so much, I convinced him to come and spend some time in Gary to really talk about what our vision and our plans should be,” the mayor said at a recent luncheon held at the airport to update region leaders on its expansion.

She said Clark dissuaded her from chasing a number of unrealistic proposals for airport development.

On the other hand, he has pointed out areas where the airport could soar, such as bulking up its profile for attracting corporate business flights and the value of public-private partnerships.

"As great as our challenges are in the city of Gary, our potential is that much greater," Freeman-Wilson said. "And we see that potential coming to pass as we work here at the airport."

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