You win some, you lose some. And then sometimes you learn you’ve been losing a lot more, for a lot longer, than you ever realized.
Atlanta taxpayers lost almost $3 million Monday when a federal jury found that the city in 2002 illegally steered an airport advertising contract to Clear Channel and a friend of former Mayor Maynard Jackson, Barbara Fouch. Those damages — plus some $11 million from Clear Channel and $3 million more from Fouch — were awarded to businessman Billy Corey, who also bid on the contract.
But most damning was the information that came out about the city’s poor oversight of airport contracts generally — a problem that may have cost Atlantans tens of millions of dollars over the years.
The fundamental problem with the airport advertising contract was that, once granted to Fouch and her partners in 1980, it was not opened for bidding again until 2002.
Favoritism wasn’t on display just when Clear Channel and Fouch — who, as a black woman, qualified as the “disadvantaged” business partner that Clear Channel needed in the 2002 bidding process — won what jurors found to be a rigged process. It was on display for more than two decades.
This contract and those for other major concessions at the airport were originally granted for a whopping 15 years; a two-year extension was then given to get Atlanta and the airport past the Olympics.
At that point, in 1997, the city was due a big rise in the rent paid by concessionaires if their contracts rolled over past their expiration date, unless the city formally agreed to keep the previous rates.
Yet, the city didn’t actually make such an agreement or enforce that rental increase against Clear Channel and Fouch. The increase that would have netted Atlanta some $15 million, according to Corey’s lawyers. Clear Channel disputes the claim.
Now, get this: To dispel the notion that Clear Channel and Fouch hadn’t been given undue favorable treatment, attorneys for the city argued in court that the city hadn’t raised the rent, or later demanded back rent, from any airport concessionaires, says Jeff Harris, an attorney for Corey.
“They tried to defend themselves by saying, ‘We weren’t showing favoritism to Clear Channel, we did it with everybody,” Harris says.
If that’s true — and it would require a thorough review of the airport’s dealings — more than a dozen major contracts may have been handled similarly improperly.
“All [city officials] had to do was enforce the terms of their contracts” with all of these vendors, Harris says, “and they’d have $100 million more than they have now.”
All of this happened before Mayor Kasim Reed’s watch. But he’s the only one now who can put an end to this foolishness. His cash-strapped city can’t afford to forgo revenue or pay for any more legal losses, if it ever could.
But reversing the city’s stated intention to appeal the Corey ruling, and instead opening a new bidding process for airport advertising, won’t suffice.
As mayor today, Reed owes taxpayers a full accounting of what we’ve lost over the years and how much (or little) transparency exists in the other airport contracts. That, and a rebidding of any contracts that have expired or were also let under dubious circumstances.
Do all that, and Reed would “have the support of all the taxpayers in the city,” says no less an authority than John Sherman, head of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation.
At the very least, he would win over a large number of us who voted for Mary Norwood simply because she represented a break from business as usual in Atlanta.