By Phil Kent
There have been suspicions of corruption and cronyism at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport since Maynard Jackson became Atlanta’s first black mayor in 1973, with complaints that vendors trying to obtain business there simply were passed over in favor of a connected group of insiders.
At one point – in November 2004 – a poll by the Atlanta firm Insider Advantage found that two-thirds of respondents, when questioned about “awarding contracts and vendor rights,” thought the city’s airport process was “politically motivated and corrupt.”
At that time, former state Attorney General Mike Bowers declared, “This poll just shows what most people already know – that the airport administration is corrupt as hell.”
It seems like things haven’t gotten any better.
A 2011 white paper researched by Kennesaw State University Professor Kerwin Swint and commissioned by Common Cause Georgia documents a litany of favoritism, bid-rigging and corruption under mayors since Jackson. It reveals that the airport is essentially a “money pot” that is the underpinning of mayoral power.
The closest that the situation came to being blown open was when Atlanta-based Corey Airport Services, owned by businessman Billy Corey, fought the system.
As the best bidder for Hartsfield-Jackson’s extremely lucrative advertising contract, Corey Airport Services (along with a minority partner) was passed over in 2002 in favor of Clear Channel and its millionaire minority partner, Barbara Fouch.
Former Atlanta television reporter Dale Cardwell says Fouch “had absolutely no airport advertising credentials. What she did have was connections to city hall. Court testimony showed she was literally handed her share of the contract … through her friendship with then-Mayor Jackson.”
But Corey sued the city, Clear Channel and Fouch in federal court, investing approximately $5 million in the lengthy legal fight. He also commissioned a huge truck to periodically roam the city with giant signage blaring “Report Airport Corruption” – complete with a telephone number to call.
The July 27, 2010, Fulton Daily Report noted that, in closing court arguments, Corey attorney Jeffrey Harris reminded the jury that witnesses had revealed “the seedy, steamy side of how contracts out at the airport get into people’s possession.”
The newspaper reported Harris emphasized that the trial was about whether the city and its airport officials treated bidders for city business fairly.
The jury ruled they didn’t, and agreed that evidence of airport corruption and cronyism was overwhelming. Corey won a jury verdict of $17.5 million.
U.S. District Court Judge Charles Pannell even remarked that the city engaged in an “evil” conspiracy with Clear Channel and Fouch against Corey.
But within months, reputable Atlanta minority firms were passed over because of what they alleged were the same barriers faced by Corey. The award-winning engineering firm Precision 2000 (a certified female and Hispanic minority construction firm), partnered with Plateau Excavation, were the lowest bidders for an airport runway extension project.
They were rejected by the city, yet the recommended bidder was $3,946,458 above Precision 2000. The losers charged the contract went to a friend of Mayor Kasim Reed.
The city soon settled with Corey using taxpayer money while Clear Channel and Fouch appealed the jury verdict. Cardwell describes what happened next, just weeks ago.
“The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that despite overwhelming evidence, Mr. Corey didn’t deserve the protection of the U.S. Constitution. Why? Mr. Corey was not part of a protected ‘class’ of Americans. You see, federal judges follow a code called precedent. If it hasn’t happened before, judges are extremely reluctant to create a ‘first.’
“In the past 50 years,” Cardwell notes, “federal judges have agreed to protect Americans based on age, sex, race, national origin, disability and religious affiliation. Those are our current protected ‘classes.’ The tragedy is the three-judge federal panel ruled it should not spend its time protecting everyday citizens like Billy Corey.”
Outrage and calls for Hartsfield-Jackson bidding reform were widespread, ranging from the fiscally conservative Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation to the liberal-leaning Common Cause of Georgia.
But to this day Cardwell reports that Reed and his city council majority still have never rebid the advertising contract held by Clear Channel and Fouch.
“A sad commentary,” he concludes.
Cronyism at the airport intensified after Corey’s loss, according to a series of stinging reports by WSB-TV’s Richard Belcher and WAGA-TV’s Dale Russell. They reported on who received contracts for 125 food and beverage concession stands as well as 27 retail locations at the airport’s new international terminal, which opened in spring 2012.
Atlanta Progressive News said at the time: “Reed continued his practice of closed-door politics, insisting upon secrecy in almost every aspect of the bidding process, raising numerous disputes surrounding the Georgia Open Records Act.”
WAGA-TV reported one major firm, Delaware North, submitted bids with errors yet was allowed by the city to rebid. It found the company was connected to Dan Halpern, Reed’s 2009 campaign adviser. Delaware North also contributed more than $22,000 to Reed.
Furthermore, the station counted up more than $80,000 in donations to Reed from owners or employees of several airport concession companies which received contracts. District 9 Councilwoman Felicia Moore also told Atlanta Progressive News that Reed submitted to council the terminal concession contracts for approval “in the middle of the night prior to the vote.”
Corey told the Atlanta Constitution in a Sept. 27, 2009, interview that the airport’s bid process is heavily tilted in favor of powerful mayoral insiders he called “royalty.”
Former TV reporter Cardwell said that remains the case: “It is still the royals versus the regular people. The royals control it, and outside businesses don’t have the opportunity to do business there.”