Posted on November 5, 2004

Airport Ad Contract Bidder Takes Case To Federal Court

Kirsten Tagami, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Nov. 4

For more than a year and a half, Atlanta-based Corey Airport Services has fought City Hall over what it says were unfair practices in the award of an airport advertising contract.

Now the company’s making a federal case of it.

Corey lawyer Mike Bowers, the former Georgia attorney general, held a news conference Thursday on the steps of Atlanta City Hall to announce a federal lawsuit alleging illegal bid-rigging and favoritism for a political insider.

Behind him were a dozen employees, friends and relatives of company owner Bill Corey. They carried bright yellow picket signs urging people to call a toll-free number (1-800-77-Corey) to report corruption at the Atlanta airport. The calls go to a Corey employee.

Meanwhile, Corey was installing a billboard along the Downtown Connector to trumpet the same number.

The lawsuit names Mayor Shirley Franklin, more than a dozen other city officials and the team that won the bid, Clear Channel Airports and its politically connected minority partner, Barbara Fouch. A longtime friend of the late former Mayor Maynard Jackson, Fouch has held a 30 percent stake in the airport’s indoor billboards since 1981.

The city certified Fouch as a “disadvantaged business enterprise,” or DBE — a key to winning airport contracts. But Corey contends Fouch, who owns a large Beverly Hills, Calif., advertising firm, is far too wealthy to be considered disadvantaged.

“She’s no more a DBE than I am, and I make a ton of money now that I’ve gotten out of politics,” Bowers said.

Corey is fighting the contract award on several fronts. In one recent legal victory, Bowers obtained Fouch’s tax records to help make Corey’s case, but he cannot make them public.

Corey first protested the selection of the Clear Channel-Fouch team in an administrative hearing that was appealed to Fulton Superior Court. In that case, Corey is asking to be awarded the contract, expected to generate about $9 million a year.

In the federal case, Corey seeks unspecified money damages and a court order preventing Atlanta officials from discriminating against the company in the future.

Franklin, in a statement issued Thursday, said the lawsuit is “without merit. As is my policy and practice, I personally did not play any role in the bid review and award of this contract.”

Franklin characterized Corey’s suit as an attack on affirmative action and said she is committed to “upholding the principles of affirmative action promoting bidding opportunities in the city of Atlanta for women, minorities and disadvantaged business owners for all those who are qualified and capable.”

Both teams that bid for the airport advertising contract partnered with companies owned by African-American women. Corey’s partner is Sydney Baxter & Co., which also was certified by the city as a disadvantaged business enterprise.

Although Corey’s team offered a higher minimum guaranteed payment to the city, a city evaluation panel chose the Clear Channel-Fouch team based on experience and other factors.

While much of Corey’s case has been aired before, the federal suit goes into more detail about the alleged conduct of some city officials. It claims, for instance, that a senior contracting officer improperly communicated with Fouch during the bidding process, including sending a four-page fax. The contents of the fax remain a mystery; Corey was only able to obtain a dated cover sheet.

The suit also claims that after city officials selected Clear Channel as the winner, they illegally met with the Clear Channel team to get it to increase its bid. Officials then revealed Corey’s financial proposal in the meeting, in violation of city code and the bid documents, the suit says.

Corey is one of four divisions of Bill Corey’s Atlanta-based US Enterprises. Clear Channel Airports is based in Chicago and owned by media giant Clear Channel Communications Inc.