(This article was originally published on July 28, 2014)
The Albuquerque Airport is ground zero for a scheme so unusual it sparked a major investigation.
“Sure it’s a big deal,” Albuquerque Aviation Director Jim Hinde said.
According to investigators, airport electricians James Lunsford, Rocky Medina, Ronnie Padilla and Jason Pettis took part in a sophisticated scheme to make big bucks by stealing city property.
“Shock… Absolute shock,” Hinde said. “Anytime the city is losing money because of apparently illegal activity it’s a big deal that needs to be addressed.”
The key to this investigation is a treasure hunt of sorts and you have to follow the clues. But don’t bother looking in all the obvious places. You won’t find anything at baggage claim or in the concourse. You can also forget about looking in all those planes, taking off and landing.
The clues to this modern day treasure hunt leads to Runway 17/35. The once busy stretch of pavement was permanently closed to air traffic two years ago, leaving the runway inactive. Just below the surface is a “pot of gold” of sorts.
Underneath the runway were miles of wiring controlling all the air field electronics and lighting. When Runway 17/35 was decommissioned in 2012, all the wiring was pulled out and stockpiled at a nearby warehouse.
Faced with a stockpile of old runway wire gathering dust, airport managers told the staff to get rid of it. City regulations require surplus property be offered for sale at a public auction.
The wiring was offered for sale on Albuquerque’s online public auction site where it was photographed and simply described as ‘scrap wire #8’ with a value of $250. No quantity was listed.
It was sold at the end of the two week online auction for $2,100. The high bidder was airport electrician James Lunsford.
Lunsford took the 8,900 pounds of scrap copper wire to Pueblo Metals Recycling and was paid $16,000. He then split the profits with Padilla, Medina and Pettis.
Anyone who participated in the auction would have thought they were bidding on a pallet of scrap wire worth just a few hundred bucks. However, only the airport employees knew the city was actually auctioning off four and half tons of copper core scrap.
Investigators allege the employees rigged the auction so they could grab the valuable wire for themselves. Before surplus city property can be sold at auction it must first be approved by an airport manager.
“I had signed off on the surplus form that showed scrap wire,” Aviation Director Hinde said. “I was not aware they were auctioning off four tons of wire.”
When asked if it was accurate to put the fair market value of the wire at $250, Hinde said it was “not accurate at all.” He also said that the people who approved the sale would have never seen what was out there.
“There is some trust factor you have to have on the approval process on these forms,” Hinde said.
Pueblo Metals Recycling was not so trusting. Because it’s not every day that someone comes in off the street wanting to sell four tons of copper wire, Pueblo Metals checked with airport maintenance manager Chuck Brice to verify Lunsford’s story that he had legitimately purchased the wire from the airport. Brice told Pueblo Metals everything was fine, no problem.
“I don’t think Chuck either was aware of the misrepresentation as to the amount of wire that was involved in the transaction,” Hinde said. “I believe there were some management mistakes made.”
Shortly after the wire auction, the airport auctioned off surplus runway signs. Aviation electrician Rocky Medina drew up the paperwork and listed the sign’s value as $200. Brice and Hinde approved the deal. And once again, Lunsford was the high bidder and bought the signs for $640.
Lunsford took his purchase to Earth Day Recycling and was paid almost $2,000. Again, the airport gang of four divvied up the profit.
This time Brice ordered an investigation. However, the 2012 probe was concluded with a verbal reprimand and Brice dropped the matter.
Two years later an airport whistleblower came forward and blew the lid off the questionable auctions. Disciplinary proceedings have been initiated against Brice.
Earlier this year, the private investigative firm of Robert Caswell Investigations was called in. The firm’s internal investigation was completed earlier this month.
As a result of the city investigation, disciplinary proceedings have been initiated against airport electricians Rocky Medina and Jason Pettis.
Ronnie Padilla transferred to the Water Authority and is no longer a city employee.
James Lunsford retired in May. The former airport electrician told News 13, he never tried to hide a thing.
“We were just trying to, just like anybody else, purchase something , see if we could make a little extra money but as far as us thinking we did something wrong? No. We would never have done that. And that’s the god’s truth,” Lunsford said.
An Albuquerque administrator told News 13 it is currently not against regulations for city employees to bid on items offered in city auctions. However, he says, this case is being referred to the Albuquerque Police Department for a criminal investigation.