JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The second in command of Jacksonville Airport Authority has admitted to breaking Homeland Security protocol by bypassing security to get thousands of dollars in cash on board a plane to Las Vegas, the I-TEAM learned Thursday.
Tony Cugno, chief operating officer for Jacksonville's four-airport system, admitted to doing this at least once for former JAA board member Ernie Isaac. The pair were accused of executing the exchange multiple times over several years.
Cugno is responsible for all daily operational activities of Jacksonville International Airport, including all aspects of safety and security at Jacksonville International Airport, Cecil Airport, Jacksonville Executive and Herlong Recreational Airport.
The inquiry into the security violation began after an airport employee reported Cugno to the ethics hotline in 2015.
The Jacksonville Office of Inspector General briefly investigated before alerting the Department of Homeland Security in a letter dated January 8, 2016, writing the investigation "appears to be criminal in nature." The city inspector general added Cugno "bypassed the security checkpoint on behalf of ex board member Ernie Isaac in order to avoid detection of U.S. Currency."
The investigation found that Cugno was overheard telling an airport facilities director and supervisor on one occasion "he has to do the Ernie thing," with that supervisor, David “Daney” Jones responding, "Do not let the TSA catch you."
The tipster pulled dates off Cugno's internal calendar, where he annotated he had met with Isaac multiple times over several years; at least four instances were specifically dated and investigated.
The informant claimed to have witnessed Isaac and Cugno meet once outside the checkpoint and watched as "Cugno bypassed the security checkpoint using his employee blue badge access," and later met up with Isaac at the gate.
That blue badge access for airport leadership were taken away as the allegations were investigated.
Notes by city of Jacksonville investigators show "the subject admitted on at least one occasion, however the AUSA (assistant U.S. attorney) declined prosecution." The subject of that investigation was Tony Cugno.
As for Isaac, he was replaced on the board in the summer of 2015, after Mayor Lenny Curry took office. Isaac was a vocal supporter of Mayor Alvin Brown.
Reached by phone Thursday, Isaac only admitted to one of the four exchanges in question. He said the exchange of “several thousand dollars” of his “personal money” was “not a big deal” and a “misunderstanding.”
Isaac also said he didn’t understand “why it was coming up now” as the matter was “already investigated.”
The Jacksonville Airport Authority issued a statement about the incident:
"The allegations regarding Tony Cugno were reported to the City's hotline in 2015. After a thorough review by the Department of Homeland Security (TSA), the U.S. Attorney's Office decided not to prosecute, and no further action was taken. Based on this investigative outcome, JAA considers this matter closed."
The I-TEAM has asked the U.S. Attorney's Office why there was no prosecution and requested records from Transportation Safety Administration on its investigation.
News4Jax has also asked for a comment from Cugno, who is still COO of the airport authority. The I-TEAM has also requested Cugno's personnel file from JAA and for any disciplinary action he received as a result of this inquiry, if any at all.
Don Green, the head of the union representing airport police, told News4Jax that he knows of two other other employees were were cited and fired for breaking rules that are not as serious as this. He said what happened here is something that should concern everyone.
"It’s hard for us to enforce violations like this when we find out our executive staff is not being held accountable and they’re violating the same security measure," Green said.
Green said he has complained to airport officials and board member, but he believes it’s falling on deaf ears.
"It kind of bothered me because it leaves it wide open to abuse," Green said. "And I believe that is what happened here, because the more I look into it, it looks like a cover up."
According to his JAA biography, Cugno has held various leadership positions within JAA since 2002. He is an active member of Airports Council International and is also a founding member of the Jacksonville University Aviation Academic Advisory Board.
A native of North Carolina, Cugno earned a bachelor's degree in aviation management and an MBA.
"His business philosophy is to create an environment where airport users experience world-class service and maintain a system of airports that benefit the needs of the local community and the regional economy," according to his JAA bio.