Federal Cash Rebuilds Airstrip Near Graves’ Land

Posted November 6, 2007 at 6:54pm



Clarification Appended

TARKIO, Mo. — Rep. Sam Graves’ (R-Mo.) airplane hangar here is littered with tools, engine parts and a half-built aircraft fuselage. A World War II-era airplane and Jeep sit prominently on display near the entrance.

Numerous projects in various stages of completion litter the complex, which measures thousands of square feet. Graves proudly shows a visitor a recently refurbished airplane engine.

It’s paradise for those who like to get their hands dirty.

But Graves’ oil-drenched playground may soon become a political liability for the four-term lawmaker, who is facing his toughest re-election battle yet. Rural Northwestern Missouri residents are beginning to grumble about his sanctuary’s proximity to a federally financed airport, which currently is being renovated to the tune of $750,000. The critics’ contention: that the lawmaker and his friends are among the few people who are directly benefiting from the federal largess.

An official at the Gould Peterson Municipal Airport declined to return phone calls during the past several days, but one Gould Peterson pilot confirmed that just two airplanes based there are used full-time for commercial purposes. The local pilot estimated that the remaining aircraft, including those owned by the Congressman, are used about half of the time for personal reasons — an issue that is drawing growing scrutiny to Graves, who has never encountered substantial political opposition as an incumbent but now faces a spirited challenge from former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes (D).

The airport sits on land once owned by Graves’ family, but currently controlled by the town. It abuts the Graves’ family farm, a commercial operation partially owned by the lawmaker and run full-time by his younger brother, Danny Graves. Although the lawmaker has ceded much of the day-to-day control to his brother, the Congressman maintains his hangar on the far reaches of his family’s plot, just steps from the publicly owned tarmac. Graves’ spokesman Jason Klindt defended the arrangement with the town, which dates back to the 1940s.

“Gould-Peterson [Municipal] Airport receives its fair share from the aviator use fees like any other airport,” Klindt said. “The people of Atchison County shouldn’t be punished because the 6th district Congressman is from their home county. This airport was built on 71 acres of land owned by the Graves family, named after the Graves family and with a permanent easement for the Graves family.”

Public records show that Graves, a farmer who has flown for 20 years, owns four airplanes registered in this town of 1,900, where his family has farmed for six generations. The one-runway airfield, Gould Peterson Municipal Airport, sits on land donated to the town by Graves’ great grandfather. The airport is named for his maternal grandparents.

Graves sits on the Agriculture, Small Business, and Transportation and Infrastructure committees and is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation.

According to the Missouri Department of Transportation, which administers federal aviation money, Gould Peterson is one of 70 community airports in the Show Me State enrolled in a formula-based federal improvement program. The federal Department of Transportation confirmed that between fiscal years 2003 and 2007, the airport was entitled to receive $750,000 in federal money to redesign and overhaul its facilities.

The airport’s balance sheet shows that the airport received $147,670 in federal grants from April 1 to Nov. 1 of this year.

The airport currently is under renovation by 6th district-based Loch Sand and Construction Company. Records indicate that the company is owned by the Loch family, generous state GOP backers who have given Graves more than $15,000 since 2000, when he won an open-seat race to replace Rep. Pat Danner (D-Mo.).

A property line separates Graves’ hangar, which is located on family-controlled property, from the other hangers that are located on land loaned to the town. According to city documents obtained by Roll Call, 14 individuals and companies hold leases with the city, for which they pay $50 to $1,375 per year.

A town official confirmed that Graves and nine others pay $50 per year for use of the airport facilities and the land to stow their aircraft. Three others, including Graves’ family business partner Brooks Hurst, pay $75 per year in leasing fees.

Late last spring, The Kansas City Star reported that Graves and his staffers spent nearly $100,000 on official travel in 2006, more than any other Missouri House Member. Graves told the newspaper he flies his airplane about half of the time when traveling around his district. Congressional aviators who use personal aircraft are reimbursed at a rate more than double what automobile drivers are for official travel.

Clarification: Nov. 13, 2007
Due to incorrect information provided by the office of Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), the article mischaracterized an arrangement involving the Congressman and a small federally funded airport in northwestern Missouri. According to land records provided to Roll Call Tuesday, the City of Tarkio took control of the property from Graves’ family in 1944 and can hold the property as long as it is used as an airport. Should city officials shutter the airstrip, the Graves family may retake control of the roughly 71 acres for $25,000, the amount the city paid for the land 63 years ago.