The truth can now be told

| 22 Feb 2012 | 08:42

    Investigation into airport owner’s alleged financial misdeeds was kept mum Wantage — Officials in Wantage acknowledge they knew that Paul Styger, owner of the Sussex Airport, was under investigation for suspicion he had embezzled grant money he’d been given to rehab the airport. But, they say, they’d kept silent at the behest of state and federal agencies because to speak out “would have compromised the investigation.” The situation had complicated their interest in purchasing the airport to make it a municipal facility. In a press release issued last week directly after Styger, 87, plead guilty to embezzlement of nearly $400,000, Wantage officials took the opportunity to “applaud federal prosecutors” and to give what they termed a “sigh of relief that the full story may now be revealed on (the) airport purchase study.” “While it was news to us that charges had actually been filed and a guilty plea submitted, we are grateful that this issue has been dealt with swiftly and properly,” Wantage Mayor Parker Space said, according to the release. “We knew investigations were ongoing into these allegations, but not that the matter had progressed so quickly and efficiently. Seeing the whole thing reach a proper end brings a sigh of relief.” Township kept the secret As the township’s own efforts to decide whether to purchase the airport continued, Wantage officials were learning of the investigation and eventually, according to their press release, heard from state and FAA sources that “the likelihood was extremely high Mr. Styger would no longer be in a position to own this airport in the future.” At that point, according to Township Administrator James Doherty, it became apparent that the airport ownership would default to one or another “level of government.” Weighing the situation, Doherty pointed out the following: “Because of the outstanding grants, pending penalties and still-needed improvements at the airport, and adding in the fact that federal grant money is not available to a private party for purchase of an airport, no private investor could possibly recover their initial investment in this airport for several decades, never mind even think about turning a profit.” Beyond that, liens and encumbrances on the property stipulate that it remain an airport, so even a deep-pocketed investor could not buy the land and hope to profit by building or repurposing the property in another manner. Deciding whether to buy According to the township’s news release, “Doherty says when it became clear to Wantage officials that no private businessman would buy a business where it was impossible to turn a profit in the private sector, ‘the only remaining question for us became: is it possible for the Township to make this a positive business investment as a public airport?’ ” Both state and federal authorities “have made it clear the Township would not be held accountable for any outstanding fines, penalties or unpaid grants if the airport were purchased, and that state and federal grants are available for a municipality to pay for the airport purchase,” according to the township’s news report. For those reasons, Wantage decided to continue on its current path. A consultant has been hired to study whether the township could make the airport profitable. Township officials anticipate that the airport feasibility study will be completed later this year. Responding to critics Mayor Space said that the township “fully recognizes limiting factors such as wetlands” and he denies rumors about expansion of the airport. Further, the township would not proceed with the purchase, Space said, if the study recommends against it. “There’s absolutely no reason to own an airport — or any business — if you know going in that it will always lose money,” he said in the township’s comprehensive news release. “However, because the future ownership of the airport is virtually guaranteed to be in the hands of either local, county or state government, ‘if we can get some revenue from owning the airport, that would offset the loss of taxes that has become an unavoidable fact,’ said Doherty, who called the potential tax loss ‘a double whammy, instead of a sound business plan to offset lost revenue with newfound revenue.’ ” Paul Styger, 87, plead guilty on May 26 to embezzling about $387,000 of a $400,000 federal grant he’d gotten to renovate the Sussex County Airport in Wantage, which he owns. He admitted to taking the money between October 2007 and January 2008 for his own use. He faces a maximum prison sentence of up to five years and a fine of $250,000. Sentencing is set for September.