If you’ve ever been curious about Atlanta’s spoils system, Monday is your lucky day. A federal jury is slated to begin hearing a lawsuit that claims city officials conspired to steer a lucrative airport contract to an old crony of former mayor Maynard Jackson.
In fact, the big question may not be “if” but “how” — as in how many millions of dollars this funny business will end up costing taxpayers.
The lawsuit, filed by Atlanta businessman Billy Corey (you’ve seen his last name on that old white smokestack across the interstate from Grady hospital), dates to a 2002 bidding process for advertising rights at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. But the broader story, which I’ve drawn from case documents, started two decades earlier.
In 1980, the city gave Barbara Fouch, a former model and a friend of Jackson, a no-bid contract to manage advertising displays at the airport. Federal funding recipients, such as our airport, must ensure minority participation in the contracts they let. And, as a black woman, Fouch and her firm qualify as a “disadvantaged business enterprise,” or DBE, under federal transportation law.
Of course, according to the deposition of the city’s head of contract compliance, even Oprah Winfrey would be considered a “disadvantaged” businesswoman under Atlanta’s interpretation of the law.
For 22 years, Fouch and a series of business partners, most recently Clear Channel, operated under an unquestioned arrangement in which the city never re-bid the contract, yet received just half of the ad proceeds. That’s well below what peer airports receive.
In 2002, new Mayor Shirley Franklin decided to open the contract to bids from other vendors, and Corey submitted one of three offers. He came within four points, on the city’s 100-point grading scale, of winning the contract, which went to Clear Channel but was never approved by the City Council.
Yet, Corey claims he actually should have beaten Clear Channel by 12 points because Fouch should not have qualified as a DBE because she’s neither disadvantaged nor a business operator; a judge’s order in the case notes that Fouch’s own DBE application to the city stated that her company owned no business equipment. Curious, huh?
Corey further claims that the city scrutinized his own DBE partner much more thoroughly than it did Fouch. He did receive full credit for his partner, but he portrays this extra scrutiny as part of the city’s efforts to make sure Clear Channel and Fouch retained the contract.
A lot more will come out as the case is tried, but an obvious question is why the city would care so much about just who held an airport contract.
If Corey’s past statements to the AJC are any indication, expect his lawyers to push the idea that the city is run for “the royals” — the insiders, both black and white — at the expense of “the regulars” — the ordinary folks, both black and white, whom the royals ignore between elections.
Should the jury agree and rule for Corey, the decision could cost Atlantans millions of dollars. Already, Corey claims the city’s shenanigans have cost taxpayers millions in forgone ad revenues.
The city might have avoided all this by re-examining the DBE part of the bids or even re-bidding the contract completely. Barring a last-minute settlement of some sort, Atlantans may soon be asking city officials “why” — as in why they’ve fought so hard in a case that looks like a legal loser.