Boise & Garden City

Boise defends Gowen, F-35 advocacy as critics claim conflict of interest

Major Ethan Sabin taxis after landing an F-35A on Feb. 24, 2016 at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Mountain Home, Idaho. A deepening argument over whether a squadron of F-35s belongs at Boise’s Gowen Field has escalated with accusations that Boise city employees improperly used their taxpayer-funded time to help a private nonprofit corporation promoting the F-35.
Major Ethan Sabin taxis after landing an F-35A on Feb. 24, 2016 at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Mountain Home, Idaho. A deepening argument over whether a squadron of F-35s belongs at Boise’s Gowen Field has escalated with accusations that Boise city employees improperly used their taxpayer-funded time to help a private nonprofit corporation promoting the F-35. kgreen@idahostatesman.com

Boise Airport Director Rebecca Hupp filed paperwork May 17 to dissolve Gowen Strong Inc. She said she paid the Idaho secretary of state’s filing fee from her own pocket, just as she had paid to file paperwork establishing the nonprofit corporation in January.

According to the dissolution document, Hupp and the nonprofit’s other two directors — Bill Connors, president and CEO of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, and Bill Shawver of Idaho Power — voted Feb. 10 to disband the fledgling corporation.

It was intended to formalize Gowen Strong, an initiative that began in 2014 after the U.S. Air Force announced plans to decommission all A-10 “Warthog” planes. Those would include the squadron the Idaho Air National Guard operates at Gowen Field, which shares the airport’s runways.

Fearing the end of the Guard’s flying mission in Boise, local and state political, economic and military leaders began coordinating efforts to promote a long-term flying mission at Gowen Field. Organizations involved included the city of Boise, Idaho Department of Commerce, Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce and Boise Valley Economic Partnership.

The partners gave the initiative the name “Gowen Strong” in late 2014, but it was still an informal alliance.

Last year, Hupp said, she started thinking about a way to give Gowen Strong a corporate structure so the coalition could raise and spend money more easily. The City Council and Boise Ethics Commission said they recognized a potential conflict of interest, but signed off on her involvement in a private corporation.

The registration of Gowen Strong Inc. was about the extent of its activities, Hupp said. The board never applied for federal nonprofit status, and the corporation had no bank accounts, did no fundraising and collected no dues, she said. Furthermore, the city of Boise never gave money to the Gowen Strong corporation, she said.

She said she, Shawver and Connors met and discussed potential bylaws. They concluded that the corporation actually created more problems than it solved, partly due to Hupp’s role as a government employee, and voted to end it.

So why did it take three months to file the paperwork to dissolve it? Hupp said she originally planned to just let the organization expire. But people questioned whether it was appropriate for Hupp, an employee of the city of Boise, to be involved with a private nonprofit.

In light of those questions, Hupp said, she decided to make the corporation’s disbanding official.

Boise watchdog David Frazier wrote a blog post on May 8, nine days before Hupp filed the dissolution paperwork, suggesting the city violated the section of the Idaho Constitution that bans governments, including cities, from using their assets to benefit private groups. Frazier compared Hupp’s arrangement with Gowen Strong Inc. to a question raised in the 1990s as to whether the state of Idaho could loan employees to the United Way for a fundraising campaign. The Idaho Attorney General’s Office later released an opinion that such an arrangement would violate the Constitution’s public purpose doctrine.

Frazier is part of the opposition to a proposal to replace Gowen’s A-10s with a squadron of F-35s, the Air Force’s cutting-edge warplane. His concern over what he believes are the city’s conflicts of interest highlights a deep mistrust between people who agree with him and Boise’s political and economic elite. Both sides accuse the other of obscuring facts and spreading misinformation.

Hupp and other city leaders say Frazier’s comparison is off-base. For one thing, Gowen Strong, the initiative, predates Gowen Strong, the corporation, by more than two years. For another, Hupp said, Frazier was incorrect in stating that the mailing address listed on the corporation’s original document was for a post office box belonging to the Boise Airport. In fact, she said, that post office box is private, though it is located at the post office branch close to the airport.

Meanwhile, Gowen Strong the initiative continues. City staff are involved in its efforts, as they have been since 2014. Sean Briggs, another city employee, is listed as the person who registered the Gowen Strong website, which is still active. Frazier also takes issue with this use of public assets for a private endeavor.

City Hall doesn’t see a conflict of interests, saying that without a private corporation in the picture, Gowen Strong is simply a goal with a name.

Spokesman Mike Journee said this situation isn’t much different from the city’s involvement with other private and public organizations on initiatives meant to improve Boise. He cited working with the Simplot family on the construction of Esther Simplot Park; cooperating with other agencies on Ridge to Rivers, which pushes the development of trails and recreational opportunities in the Foothills; and being a member of the Chamber of Commerce.

Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Gowen Strong, Inc., post office box belonged to the city of Boise.

Related stories from Idaho Statesman

  Comments