The head of Charlotte Douglas International Airport says he will take an extra 30 days to decide the fate of the airport’s taxi contract. That contract is up for renewal. But allegations of corruption has led Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle to look at what legal options he has in seeking a new deal. He made the announcement last night, while airport staff briefed the city council on the process that lead to the contract in the first place. It was a briefing with some holes.
The corruption allegations with the taxi contract centers around Mohammad Jenatian – the head of the Greater Charlotte Tourism and Hospitality Alliance, or HTA, and former Mayor Patrick Cannon.
And the thrust of the allegations by the owners of at least three taxi companies is this: In 2011, the year the contract was being finalized, Jenatian and Cannon set up a pay-to-play scheme where only cab companies who paid the HTA $5,000 annually, the group’s highest level of “membership,” would get access to the most lucrative taxi market in the city.
But before the airport delegation could begin, City Manager Ron Carlee made it clear that the meeting would not serve as an opportunity to dig into those charges.
"There have been a number of allegations made with regards to this process, including some that are of a criminal nature. We will not be discussing any of those tonight."
What the council got instead was a history lesson in what prompted the city to limit which tax companies could serve the airport.
Before 2011, they say the airport taxi situation was unpredictable. Shabby cabs, no quality control and no real way to make sure taxis were there when passengers needed them.
The airport decided it wanted just a few cab companies to be able to pick up passengers. They claimed the system could better meet customer needs and ensure clean, modern cabs. The airport’s Haley Gentry said three companies were picked for the contract.
"At that time it was Crown, Yellow and King. However with further research, the city manager determined that it was not in the city’s or the public’s best interest to issue an operating agreement to the operator of King Cab, and recommended the selection committee’s first alternate, City Cab," she said.
Here’s where the holes in the presentation started popping up.
Council member LaWana Mayfield asked Gentry why the city removed its offer to King Cab.
Gentry answered: "A felony conviction of one of the owners."
Actually, there were two federal convictions. Two of the owners were busted trying to buy fake drivers licenses.
Then Gentry was asked if all of the taxi companies could have paid for the upgrades required in the contract, which included credit card machines and GPS systems.
"I can tell you not all of these companies could meet these qualifications," she answered.
But no mention on how it was decided that City Cab could meet these qualifications. That company, which is really more of a driver co-op, had formed just months prior.
And what about Mohammad Jenatian of the HTA and the allegations of a pay-to-play scheme?
Leila Lahabbi, the airport's top lawyer, took that one.
"There had been allegations at that time that HTA membership played some role in the selection process. So staff was asked to research HTA membership, and what we found was that two of the three companies that were recommended were members. And that two of the six not recommended were also members."
But membership alone isn’t the issue. The allegations have always been that only the highest dues-paying HTA members got the contract.
Many cab companies kicked out of the airport are now calling on Council to kill the current system.
But some council members don't like that idea. David Howard asked why taxi companies at the airport should be punished when they have been performing well. He said he was "frustrated we all keep getting brushed with this issue."
Howard has been asked about this issue because Jenatian helped raised money for his campaign.
And Michael Barnes, who received $24,000 in donations from Yellow Cab in his last campaign, also pushed to keep the current contract.
"We want the best cars, the best service and the best drivers to show the best face of the city. And from my perspective and according to what you guys just told us, we’ve been accomplishing that since 2011," Barnes said.
Yellow Cab has given to other members of Council as well, and to Patrick Cannon - comprising some 10 percent of his total campaign donations in his race for mayor.
As for Brent Cagle, the man who is left to figure out what to do next: "I wasn’t here, I wasn’t a part of that process," says Cagle. But he adds the recent allegations make him "cautious."
And when the contract was passed in 2011, the aviation director was given all the power on whether or not to renew. So Cagle bought himself another month to decide.
"What we really need to do over the next 30 days is what our route forward long term is that is legally defenseable in the short term and the long term and then bring that out in a package."
Its not much time considering a whole new contract could take six months or more. That’s assuming lawsuits don't bog down the process.