Jan. 20–The former executive director of Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport is suing the Peninsula Airport Commission and three current and former airport employees, accusing them of defaming him last year.
Ken Spirito — who led the airport from early 2009 until his termination in May — contends that two current employees, one former employee and a commissioner defamed his character when they exchanged text messages about Spirito shredding documents while the state was conducting an audit of the airport.
Those exchanges, Spirito contends, intentionally conveyed "the false implication" that he was shredding evidence related to the Virginia Department of Transportation examination of a $5 million line of credit to People Express Airlines almost three years earlier.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday in Williamsburg/James City Circuit Court.
James S. McNider III, a lawyer representing the airport, said the Peninsula Airport Commission — which is also expected to represent the past and present employees being sued — would defend itself. "The airport intends to vigorously defend itself against each and every Spirito allegation," McNider said.
The airport’s financial practices came under intense scrutiny in early 2017 after the Daily Press reported that the Peninsula Airport Commission had quietly guaranteed the loan from TowneBank to the startup airline in 2014. After People Express quickly collapsed and defaulted on its loan, the airport commission used $4.5 million in taxpayer dollars to pay off the debt.
After the newspaper’s coverage began, then-state Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne ordered an audit of the airport and its operations. The airport commission put Spirito on paid leave on March 2, and fired him in May after hearing the audit’s preliminary findings.
Though the document shredding was referenced in the VDOT audit, it wasn’t listed as one of the Peninsula Airport Commission’s reasons for firing the executive.
Still, Spirito’s lawsuit contends that the reports of shredding have defamed him.
"As the (VDOT) investigation unfolded in early 2017 and the targeting of (Spirito) in the press became widely known, certain disgruntled PAC employees began a digital whispering campaign of unfounded innuendo that (Spirito) was shredding documentary evidence relevant to the People Express investigation," the lawsuit said.
It added, "The text messages and the preposterous innuendo regarding destruction of evidence were further published and transmitted to others, ultimately finding their way into the VDOT report relating to the People Express investigation."
The complaint asserts that the Daily Press "targeted Plaintiff and commenced a relentless defamatory campaign against (Spirito), publishing allegations about shredding of evidence … and splashing these false allegations across the front page of its publication."
Spirito contends he was the only person who consistently tried to shield the airport from financial losses, before and after the loan agreement was signed.
"As the failures of People Express to meet its obligations became apparent in the early days of its operation, (Spirito) repeatedly alerted the PAC board to the problems and the potential for financial losses," the complaint said. "Emails set forth in VDOT’s audit chronology of events show that Plaintiff actively sought, more than any other person involved, to protect the PAC from losses related to the People Express loan."
In fact, the suit asserts, Spirito "ultimately drew the ire of the People Express executives for being instrumental in cutting off the flow of funds" to the airline.
But because of the defamation, Spirito asserts, his aviation career has been destroyed. He said the statements "were made recklessly and negligently with disregard for their truth or falsity."
In 1997, the complaint said, Spirito — then 25 years old — became the youngest person ever to attain a certain airport executive accreditation. "Until the occurrence of the defamatory events described herein, (Spirito) was extraordinarily well regarded in the airport management profession," and was actively recruited by other airports.
"The defamation described herein has caused catastrophic damage to Plaintiff in his business, trade, profession and occupation," the complaint said. "Plaintiff has incurred special damages in that he can no longer pursue his career in his chosen profession." He’s also had a lower income and has a lessened reputation in the community, the lawsuit said.
Named as defendants in the lawsuit are the Peninsula Airport Commission, accounting specialist Lisa M. Ortiz, finance and administration director Renee Ford, former airport supervising janitor Wilmer K. Thomas Jr., and Peninsula Airport Commission member and Newport News City Councilwoman Sharon P. Scott.
Thomas said Friday he hadn’t heard about the lawsuit and stood by his allegation of seeing the shredding. He said, "I just know what I’ve seen."
Ford said Friday that she hadn’t had a chance to read through the entire lawsuit.
"The only thing I can say is that I’m just going to defer to (McNider) about what’s best regarding it," she said. "I don’t feel like my comments defamed him, so I guess that’s why we have to go through this process."
Ortiz declined to comment.
Scott could not immediately be reached for comment.
The complaint, filed by attorneys David L. Littel and Kellam T. Parks of the Virginia Beach firm of Parks Zeigler, asks for "compensatory damages of $3 million and punitive damages of $1 million for each published defamatory statement," plus court costs, interest, "and such further relief as the court may deem appropriate."
It was one morning in early March that Ortiz texted her boss, Ford, expressing surprise that Spirito was shredding documents, according to the state audit.
"Wow Ken is shredding shredding shredding," Ortiz wrote at 8:28 a.m. on March 2.
Ford texted back: "Unbelievable!"
Ortiz: "Seems kind of weird."
Ford: "This is getting out of hand!"
That exchange took place about five weeks after VDOT announced that it had launched an audit of the Newport News airport. Later in the day, the Peninsula Airport Commission put Spirito on paid administrative leave. In September, Ford told the Daily Press that she doesn’t know what Spirito was shredding on March 2.
"Whatever he was shredding is gone," Ford said in an interview.
In his lawsuit, Spirito contends that he wasn’t shredding anything out of the ordinary, saying he was shredding "hard copies of some old, duplicate airline presentations."
"The presentations remained in existence in hard copy and electronic form in Plaintiff’s office in his bookcase and on his computer, and possibly on the main PAC servers as well, after the duplicate hard copies were shredded," the complaint said. "There was absolutely nothing improper about shredding these documents."
"Any allegation that Plaintiff was destroying documents for an improper purpose, by implication or otherwise, is utterly false," the complaint said. "There was never any reason whatsoever to infer or conclude that Plaintiff was destroying evidence in an effort to impede an investigation."
The VDOT audit also references a second account of document shredding.
Documents show that Thomas — a former airport janitorial supervisor — sent a Facebook message to Scott, with the councilwoman saying she received it on March 17.
"I know about the paper shredding at the airport!" Thomas wrote in the message at 1:15 p.m. He left his number, and asked Scott to call him.
Scott replied immediately: "Thanks for sharing! Will call you later!"
Scott said she did not call Thomas back, but referred his message to state auditors.
According to VDOT audit documents, Thomas messaged Scott again in April: "I told you … that I (know) about the paper shredding a couple of weeks ago," he wrote. "I saw (airport marketing director Jessica Wharton) and Ken coming from the shredder when I walked in the office after 8 p.m. Then was let go about 2 weeks later without a write-up."
Thomas was fired in mid-February.
Spirito’s complaint said no shredding occurred in Spirito’s office that day.
"On the evening of January 27, 2017, Thomas entered Plaintiff’s office to remove trash from the office," the complaint said. "Also present in Plaintiff’s office at that time was Jessica Wharton. … Thomas initiated a conversation, in which he was complimentary toward Plaintiff and Wharton regarding the overall management of the airport, protection of the employees, and integrity of operating the airport."
But after being fired from the airport "for making inappropriate comments to an airline employee," the complaint said, Thomas fabricated the story about seeing the document shredding.
"Both the allegation that Plaintiff was shredding anything at that time and the implication that he was shredding something improperly were complete fabrications," the complaint said. "Thomas was a disgruntled employee at the time that he sent these messages."
Dujardin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4749.
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