Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Sikorsky Memorial Airport (KBDR), Bridgeport, Connecticut: Settlement brings upgrade closer

BRIDGEPORT -- The final pieces are falling into place for the city and state -- after two decades and a recent scandal involving no-bid contracts and conflicts of interest -- to break ground on runway safety improvements at Sikorsky Memorial Airport.

The City Council's late-night vote on Tuesday settled pending litigation and apparently cleared the way for the state to borrow its portion of the $43 million project and the Department of Transportation to begin advertising for contractors in the coming months.

The upgrades must be completed by Jan. 1, 2016 or the Federal Aviation Administration would close Sikorsky, according to Mayor Bill Finch and his staff. City Attorney Mark Anastasi told council members on Tuesday that federal and state officials recently began referring to the 2016 deadline as a "guillotine date."

"We've used `drop dead (date)' but I guess it's either more dramatic or more politically correct," Anastasi said. "But it means the same thing. We're on an extraordinarily tight deadline."

The safety improvements were ordered following a 1994 plane crash that killed eight people. But Bridgeport, which owns the airport, and Stratford, where Sikorsky is located, spent years battling over the scope of the project. Federal and state authorities finally intervened and the two municipalities came to terms in 2012.

The FAA agreed to foot 90 percent of the $43 million bill, with the state and city splitting the balance.

"They don't come up with $43 million for any single project," Acting Airport Manager Pauline Mize, hired by Finch late last year, told the council Tuesday. "This is an unprecedented amount of money."

But by last summer, the safety work was jeopardized by a 1,000-foot, $400,000 gravel driveway leading to the gates of controversial developer Manny "Manuel" Moutinho's waterfront mansion.

For years, Moutinho and three neighbors reached their Stratford properties using a dirt driveway across airport land. Around 2010, Moutinho obtained Bridgeport's permission to relocate that driveway.

He obtained the building permits from Stratford in 2012, but never moved ahead until spring 2013.

That's when Hearst Connecticut Media reported the city had assumed Moutinho's permits and circumvented competitive bidding requirements to hire him to install the driveway for $400,000 -- about twice what Moutinho's representative told Stratford it would cost.

Through Tuesday's council meeting, Finch's administration argued that Moutinho's original dirt driveway was in the way of the needed runway safety work, and since the developer had not moved it on his own, the city had to do it for him in order to meet that 2016 FAA deadline.

Then Hearst reported that longtime Airport Manager John Ricci, who with the city's law department cut the deal with Moutinho, was a friend of the developer and had engaged in private real estate transactions with Moutinho. Finch launched an internal investigation and fired Ricci last summer, for allegedly failing to reveal his conflict of interest.

Complicating matters further, a Stratford condominium association, Breakwater Key, had appealed Moutinho's zoning permits, arguing they never should have been issued. The airport project was never part of Moutinho's original 2012 zoning application, which instead centered on the need to move the driveway because the old dirt one was prone to flooding.

Breakwater's lawsuit was pending when Bridgeport took the risk of building the driveway.

Last summer, a judge sided with Breakwater, leading to the $65,000 settlement that 17 out of 20 Council members approved Tuesday. Of that, $45,000 will reimburse Breakwater's legal fees and $20,000 will pay to better screen the driveway from the condominiums.

The council has claimed it was never told about the driveway. Some of members elected in November and some council incumbents have since been pushing for greater transparency in City Hall, and for revisions to the city's purchasing rules.

New Councilman Rick Torres, R-130, the council's lone Republican, said Tuesday that he still did not understand how the city ended up paying Moutinho to build his own driveway.

"Doesn't it make sense to anyone, if the man was willing to do it himself, we should have let him and not spent $400,000?" Torres said.

Publicly, city officials have never questioned Moutinho's motives for holding off on the driveway project until the city took it over. In fact, an internal memorandum recently surfaced in which Finch claimed not to have known Moutinho was even hired by the city to install the driveway.

"If the timing had worked out, that would have been fortuitous to the city," Anastasi told the Council Tuesday. "Unfortunately, it was fortuitous for someone else."

Torres also questioned the logic behind firing Ricci if, as the Finch administration claimed, the $400,000 price tag was the cheapest deal the city would have gotten for the driveway work had it been bid.

"If he (Ricci) saved the city money, why was he fired?" asked Torres.

Finch, who presides over council meetings, said, "He gave the work to a man he owed money to. It sullied the process."

"I am not indicating how we got here was by any means perfect," Anastasi said. But, he said, if the driveway matter was not settled, the FAA's financial commitment would disappear and the airport would either be closed or the city would be forced to fight a lengthy, expensive court battle with the federal government.

Mize added that the federal government would have first right to the airport land, and even were Bridgeport able to sell it, the city would have to pay back aid the government previously invested.

"At this point that ($65,000 settlement) is your last, best choice," Anastasi said.

Finch Tuesday appealed to council members' emotions, recalling the 1994 plane crash and arguing that the their vote was a matter of life and death.

"We have potentially blood on our hands if we do not act expeditiously," Finch said. "I know none of you want to go to the funeral of the next families who lose their loved ones in the most gruesome ways you can imagine. Let's be serious. We have peoples lives in the palms of our hands."

Torres was among the majority council members who backed the settlement.

"It would be a travesty if we let it (Sikorsky) close," he said.

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LEX 18 Investigates: Blue Grass Airport Hired Firm That Employs Director's Wife

The Blue Grass Airport was the subject of one of the biggest scandals in Lexington's recent history. In 2008, news reporters and state auditors uncovered hundreds of thousands of dollars of questionable spending by top airport executives.

So you would think airport officials would be especially cautious these days when it comes to ethics. However, a recent contract between the airport and a recruiting firm that employs the airport director's wife has raised questions about how closely the airport monitors conflicts of interest.

LEX 18 Investigates discovered that Blue Grass Airport paid $4,550 to the Florida-based ADK Executive Search company to solicit job applications for a vacant, executive-level position at the airport.

Linda Frankl, who is married to Blue Grass Airport Executive Director Eric Frankl, is the vice president of ADK Executive Search.

Eric Frankl sat down with LEX 18 Investigative Reporter Richard Essex to discuss the contract. He said he doesn't think the hiring of ADK Executive Search was a conflict of interest.

He tells LEX 18 Investigates it was a "judgment call" on his part to hire the firm that employs his wife.

"They are a very well recognized firm," he said. "They do great work in our industry."

The firm specializes in the recruitment of managers for airports across the country. It helped solicit 200 applicants for Blue Grass Airport's human resources director position, Frankl said.

The HR director position has been vacant since January 1, and whoever is ultimately hired will be paid $70,000 to $80,000 per year.

ADK Executive Search's Web site says it's important to hire qualified managers with airport experience, but several Lexington-based HR directors told LEX 18 Investigates a good HR manager can work in any industry.

The last HR director hired on the recommendation of ADK Executive Search, in South Bend, Ind., was the former HR manager of a public library system.

The Lexington airport's executive search was not opened for bidding to other recruitment firms, airport spokeswoman Amy Caudill said.

"The airport is not required to bid for professional services below $20,000, but generally does for parts and supplies," she said in a statement.

Caudill also said Linda Frankl did not help with the search, and that the firm's work overall is minimal.

"This firm is only assisting us with the online collection of resumes, some testing and perhaps the required background checks of the final candidates," she said. "The airport management staff will be handling the bulk of the work internally."

The airport's ethics policy lists avoidance of conflicts of interest as one of the guiding principles in its ethics policy, which was revised following a state audit that saw the resignation and criminal conviction of four airport executives over a spending scandal.

Former executive director Michael Gobb, operations director John Coon, planning director John Slone, and administration and finance director John Rhodes were all charged with theft after the audit turned up more than $500,000 in questionable spending on entertainment, drinks, meals, travel, gifts and more.

The updated ethics policy bars both "actual or apparent conflicts of interest" between employees and the airport "and in personal and professional relationships."

Airport board member Chuck Ellinger, who also is a city councilman, said he didn't think the board was aware of the airport's contract with ADK Executive Search. But he said he was not concerned.

"It is something we, as a board, can look at," he said. "I think we all have confidence in Eric and in our next board meeting, I'm certain it will be brought up and we can talk about it."

Frankl said the airport's relationship with ADK predates his wife's employment with them.

"We have used them three times on a small scale, but, again, we used them prior to my wife's affiliation with them," he said.

He also said the airport probably would not use ADK Executive Search again, or any recruiting firm, anytime soon.

"Once we get the right HR person, I don't think we will need to," Frankl said.

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