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A lesson in accountability

State Comptroller Gerald Lewis has finally brought the high-flying members of the Hillsborough Aviation Authority back to earth.

It took the shameless extravagance of its chairman and the embarrassing drum-beat of publicity to draw Lewis' attention to a problem that has permeated the authority for years. The board members forget who they work for. Now Lewis has given them what could be an expensive lesson in public accountability.

He also put the lie to suggestions by some prominent African-Americans in Tampa that Authority Chairman Arthenia Joyner was being singled out because she is black. Joyner's travel was merely the most egregious example, and her arrogant dismissal of criticism showed how out of touch public officials can become. The authority's first-class travel policy first came to light nearly two years ago after Times staff writer Bill Adair looked into Jim Selvey's bon voyage trip to Germany and Spain. Selvey spent $8,000 on that trip, even though he left the authority a few days after he returned. One reason the junket was so expensive was because Selvey chose first-class over coach. Joyner took the issue to another level, taking trips with no apparent aviation connection.

That kind of lavish spending violates state law, Lewis concluded after a thorough audit of the authority's travel. Lewis wants members to reimburse the public. That would be an appropriate solution, even though the board members based their travel on bad advice from their attorney, Stewart Eggert.

The authority's longtime executive, George Bean, encouraged board members to follow his example and fly first-class to conferences in far-off lands to learn the intricacies of his business. His eagerness to please his ever-changing bosses may have led to this abuse.

That attitude also has led to another curious perk of office that ought to be stopped. For years, the authority's board members have gotten life-time parking passes for Tampa International Airport. Even members later convicted of corruption kept their passes. Even if it's legal, that generous subsidy ought to be stopped.

Though the authority has grudgingly changed its travel policy to more closely follow state guidelines, it is not clear how much the attitudes have changed. An appointment to the authority is supposed to be a public service, not a bid for private gain.