SISTERS, OR -- Negotiations between the Sisters Eagle Airport and Oregon Department of Transportation have reached an impasse, prompting both sides to file conflicting complaints over Connect Oregon funds the airport received in 2015. ODOT is demanding to be paid back $390,000 and the airport has refused, claiming the owners did nothing wrong.
The Sisters Airport received the grant for construction of a taxiway, pavement of aircraft parking and ramp areas, installation of runway lighting, and associated improvements. ODOT's Dave Thompson says the state conducted a standard audit of how the money was used, and found payments for ineligible project expenses, including work on a hanger and the construction of a drainage runoff area not on airport property, "ODOT entered into a full year of negotiations with the Sisters Airport, all in an effort to reach a settlement regarding the grant. Those negotiations have failed to reach a settlement."
According to the complaint obtained by KBND News, the airport argues all reimbursed expenses were reasonable and adequately documented, and the grant "does not prohibit reimbursements of expenses associated with Benjamin Benson's professional services." However, ODOT's counterclaim asserts the "plaintiff's use of grant funds was fraught with self-dealing, profiting from public funds, unreasonable expenses, accounting problems, and multiple violations of the governing grant agreement."
Matthew Bowler is with the Mandala Agency, a public relations firm representing the Sisters Eagle Airport and owners Benjamin and Julie Benson. Bowler says the airport began seeking a jury trail when negotiations reached an impasse, "It's a process of negotiation now within the legal system, and it is something that a judge will review and adjudicate on." He says the Bensons believe they've been treated unfairly, "The basis of the legal action is, 'treat us the same way you treat everyone else that you awarded a grant to in the last five years, and we can solve this problem'." But, Thompson says taking the airport to court is uncharted territory, "This is the first lawsuit; it was actually the first compliance review complaint that has originated out of Connect Oregon. It's the only one."