Mecklenburg Judge To Decide If Airport-Taxi Suit Can Go Forward
Two cab companies are suing the city of Charlotte and nine others over the controversial taxi contract at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. They claim that contract was decided by a conspiracy of business and civic leaders as well as former mayor Patrick Cannon.
It’s now up to a Mecklenburg County Superior Court judge to decide if the case can go forward.
WFAE’s Tom Bullock was in the courtroom today and joins Duncan McFadyen to discuss.
DM: Let’s begin with the background on these cases.
TB: These two cases, one brought by the owner of Universal Cab company, the other brought by the owners of Diamond Cab, trace back to the 2010 decision to limit the number of taxi companies that can pick up passengers at Charlotte Douglas Airport. Before 2010, there were 12 companies that could ferry passengers from the airport to wherever. Now there are just three.
Diamond Cab and Universal are not among them.
In their respective suits the two companies allege there was an agreement between Jerry Orr, then head of the airport; Tim Newman, then head of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority; Mohammed Jenatian, the head of the Greater Charlotte Hospitality and Tourism Alliance (HTA) and Patrick Cannon, who was then on the city council, to rig the process that would decide which companies got those lucrative taxi contracts.
DM: And that’s where the alleged conspiracy comes into play.
TB: That’s right. They claim in court documents, and they’ve made the same claims to WFAE in the past, that Mohammed Jenatian, the head of the HTA promised taxi contracts to those that paid his group $5,000 a year to become corporate sponsors. Which is what two of the companies that did in fact get the contract did. They also allege companies that got the contract gave large campaign contributions to Patrick Cannon as he ran for mayor in 2013 – and that they say is a quid-pro-quo agreement and a form of conspiracy and corruption. The three cab companies that did receive the airport contract were also listed in both suits.
DM: Now what was heard in court today?
TB: It’s important to note this wasn’t the actual trial. Today, the judge heard arguments over whether or not the trial should happen.
DM: So what were the arguments by the defense?
TB: Well, with two cases and nine defendants there were a lot of arguments presented. But there were four arguments that seemed to be universal. The first deals with what’s known as standing, whether the plaintiffs can show they may have suffered some injury, financial in this case, due to the illegal or unlawful actions by the defendants.
And the key argument here is this – the final say on the taxi contract was made by the city council, when they voted 9-2 to approve it. Now the city is a defendant and this argument was first made by the city’s attorney. The city does control the airport. BUT the city in this case does not mean the city council itself. That’s a separate body. And they are not, as a whole, being sued. So the defense argues any injury that may have been suffered was not due to their clients.
DM: I understand another argument has to do with how the airport is run.
TB: That’s right, the airport is a city entity but it's run as a stand-alone business. Not unlike, they argued, concession stands at city owned stadiums. Since it is run like a business the person who runs it can enter into contracts as they like. Thus, they argued, nothing illegal was done by limiting the number of cab companies at the airport.
And finally, as to the conspiracy claims, the defense teams did not deny the campaign contributions to Cannon or the $5,000 membership paid to the HTA – but they argue so what? – those things happened but they don’t show conspiracy or corruption. The contributions to Patrick Cannon came at least two years after the airport contract was enacted and membership in a hospitality and tourism alliance was natural for a cab company.
Overall the defense teams said these charges were ridiculous – with one lawyer even saying the cases were as realistic as the film version of Into the Woods where Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Jack from Jack and the Bean Stalk all meet up.
DM: So that was the defense arguments, how did the plaintiffs counter?
TB: In two ways. First, they argued even if it was legal for the city to decide the contract anyway they liked, the way it was done was a conspiracy and therefore illegal. And second, they said the defendants were in de facto control of the selection process. The city council vote, they argued, was nothing more than a rubber stamp.
Now as to whether they proved that conspiracy today – the plaintiffs argued they didn’t have to at this stage of the cases. One lawyer chided the defense teams by saying they wanted a ballistic test on the bullet in court today, adding all they had to do was show there was a smoking gun. If the case moves forward they would go through the discovery phase of the trial and that’s where the proof could be obtained.
DM: When will we know the judge’s decision?
TB: We're not sure. State law requires this to be a written decision, and this is a complicated case. And the judge says he has a lot on his docket at the moment but will release his decision as soon as it was feasible.