Airport's ex-manager says case was 'sham'

'I didn't take a penny of their money'
Jun. 10, 2014 @ 08:18 AM

In the final hours before he began his sentence in federal prison, Alex Dean Nelson wanted everyone to know that he wasn’t given a fair chance to dispute the charges against him.

“I want the people in my county to know the truth,” Nelson, 50, said in a call Monday to the News-Topic on his way to the federal prison in Beaver, W.Va., which is near Beckley in southeastern West Virginia.

Nelson, former manager of Foothills Regional Airport, pleaded guilty in September 2012 to one count of conspiracy, one count of embezzlement and one count of money laundering. He was sentenced this past February to 37 months in prison and three years of supervised release, and he was ordered to pay restitution to the airport of nearly $130,000 and to the N.C. League of Municipalities of $50,000. In April he was granted a two-month extension before having to report to begin his sentence.

Even though he pleaded guilty, Nelson said he was never given a chance to provide the U.S. Attorney's Office with documents that he says prove that he didn’t use money taken from airport customers to buy a Chevrolet Corvette, Ford Explorer SUV, pontoon boat and pool at his home, as the FBI and prosecutors alleged.

“This is the biggest damn sham,” Nelson said. “I was never once interviewed before the ... (court document detailing the charges) was written and never given the opportunity.

“I’m getting ready to sit my rear end up here in Beckley for who knows how long, and I didn’t take a penny of their (airport customers') money.”

Nelson said shoddy bookkeeping led to many of the problems involving missing money, citing lost invoices, late financial reports and other problems he blamed on the airport board's accountant, Norm Sherwood.

But Lenoir assistant city manager Danny Gilbert said the late audit reports and lost invoices were the responsibility of the airport manager -- Nelson. The airport's bookkeeping problems went away when airport management changed, he said.

"Norm Sherwood is still doing his same role, and we have zero issues," Gilbert said, adding that more reports are being produced now than ever before at the airport in a timely manner.

Nelson's attorney, Jack Stewart of Asheville, could not be reached for comment Monday.