MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) There isn't a state airport project in Vermont that moves forward without the green light from Guy Rouelle, a longtime VTrans employee and the state aeronautics administrator for the last six years.
But when we tried to call Rouelle about the pending sale of the state plane, we learned he'd stepped down six months ago.
"He resigned on his own," said Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont.
And the governor dissolved Rouelle's position, quietly folding aviation into rail.
Reporter Jennifer Costa: Was it purely a cost savings or are there problems in the aviation department?
Gov. Phil Scott: After the former director moved on, we did an internal audit to try to find opportunities for us to do things differently.
Opportunities he later described as "irregularities" within the aviation program.
"We thought it was time to take a deeper look," Scott said. "There is an investigation underway at this point in time, so I can't really comment on what they're looking into."
While the governor admitted there's an ongoing investigation, he said he couldn't give us specifics. Those we found in an internal memo VTrans sent to Vermont State Police in October. In it, VTrans appears to blow the whistle on Rouelle. They claim an agency audit for potential mismanagement found multiple instances where he circumvented policies in an apparent attempt to gain favor within the aviation community including:
-Abuses of his state purchasing card.
-Advancing projects at airports where he had personal relationships.
-Creating two budgets: one for his bosses and lawmakers to see; another he used internally with no oversight.
They also flag his spending of state funds for projects that "would have qualified for federal funds... which would have saved the state significant resources."
We don't know how much money VTrans thinks Rouelle may have cost the state. But we do know he's accused of racking up a $19,000 tab at Sharkey's Helicopters. His boss says Rouelle claimed he was taking three aviation courses. The agency says it later learned through the audit "the courses were for helicopter training, a function not required under his job description, and that he rented a helicopter on a regular basis throughout 2016 and 2017."
We got his monthly purchasing logs. Rouelle does not appear to hide his spending, thousands of dollars month after month with signed invoices that clearly reflect helicopter flight time. And an email between Rouelle and the VTrans finance team where he says he's becoming a helicopter pilot and the money is going toward "flight proficiency and use of another aircraft while the state plane was down."
Why not just fly a rented airplane for those five months rather than charging taxpayers to become a helicopter pilot? And why did the state continue to foot the bill for lessons months after the state plane was back in the air?
Jennifer Costa: Did this department need more oversight?
Gov. Phil Scott: We think, again, after doing the internal audit that we should be doing things differently. More checks and balances... Obviously, any time something like this surfaces, we can look back and say we should have done things differently and we're trying to be proactive in doing that.
We called Rouelle who is now working in the private sector as an aviation consultant. He seemed shocked when we asked about a state police investigation. He told us he did "phenomenal work" for the state.
In this resignation letter, Rouelle says he inherited an airport system in a "deep state of disrepair" and under his leadership, transformed it, securing $73 million in federal funding for repairs, completed projects on time and on budget, and, for the first time ever, "carried funds forward rather than burdening other programs." He also offered his consulting services to the state.
"I'm not sure that we would move in that direction," the governor said. "We've decided to move the two programs together and we are quite comfortable in the leadership we have at this point in time."
State police confirmed that an investigation is ongoing but detectives declined to comment further.
After initially talking with WCAX News, Rouelle declined to answer specific questions. We later heard from his lawyer, who tells us Rouelle learned about the investigation from us. He says his client followed administrative procedures and always got approval for purchases he made. His lawyer questions whether this is political, given the recent formation of a state aviation caucus by the Legislature. He issued a statement saying, "Mr. Rouelle considers the timing of the investigation's disclosure to be disconcerting, to say the least." And, "... we sincerely hope that this is not an attempt to silence an advocate for our state's aviation infrastructure."