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Money missing Airport executive VP quits

By Staff
AMENDED MINUTES Meridian Airport Authority Board Chairman Shelby Dement, left, hands amended copies of the board's minutes to Tom Williams, the authority's president and CEO. The board Thursday accepted the resignation of Executive Vice President Mark Cowart after allegations arose of embezzlement. Photo by Paula Merritt/The Meridian Star
By Ben Alexander/The Meridian Star
March 23, 2001
Amid allegations of embezzlement, the Meridian Airport Authority's executive vice president resigned Thursday, nine days after being placed on probation.
MMA board members accepted the resignation of Mark Cowart, executive vice president and chief marketing officer. The decision was announced after an executive session, which lasted about an hour and 45 minutes and was closed to the public and media.
Cowart was unavailable for comment, having exited the airport authority's conference room through a back door at some point during the executive session of the specially-called meeting. None of the four board members chairman Shelby Dement and members Myles Frank, Cassie Kauerz and Wallace Heggie would comment, deferring to Williams.
According to Williams, Cowart had worked for the authority since July 1993 and was solely responsible for collecting fees  mostly cash from the "Honor Box" at the airport's long term parking lot. Under airport procedures, customers using the long term spaces were asked to pay $2 a night. An envelope was placed on their vehicles instructing on how much was owed and the money could then be dropped in collection boxes as they left the terminal.
Williams said money was found to be missing from the fund in mid-February, although officials were unsure of how much money had allegedly been taken. Williams said the uncertainty was one of the reasons State Auditor Phil Bryant would be asked to investigate.
After making an open records request, The Meridian Star and other media outlets obtained copies of the MAA's March 13 board meeting. According to those documents, board members initially refused Cowart's letter of resignation after he admitted to the theft.
According to the minutes, Cowart was originally to be put on probation for one year, ordered to seek counseling for "his problem with theft," have his salary reduced to $47,500 per year and ordered to pay $5,000 in restitution.
Although Williams said the MAA's acceptance of Cowart's resignation didn't preclude criminal charges, such a decision would ultimately rest with the state auditor's office. Williams also said the auditor's office would decide whether or not restitution is sought.
Williams said airport authority officials were disappointed with the recent events and would work to regain the public's trust.
In the future, for example, two authority employees will be accountable for parking fees.
Williams said the authority would likely wait several months before advertising for Cowart's replacement.
The Meridian Airport Authority has an annual operating budget of about $450,000, funded largely by federal and state grants and fees generated by private leases and operations.
Ben Alexander is a staff writer for The Meridian Star. E-mail him at balexander@themeridianstar.com.

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