A federal jury on Monday awarded $17.5 million in damages to an Atlanta businessman who claimed the City of Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport illegally steered a lucrative indoor advertising contract to a competitor with deep political connections.
The verdict, which came after nearly eight hours of deliberations, called for Billy Corey and his company, Corey Airport Services, to receive $8.5 million in compensatory damages, to be paid in thirds by the city, Clear Channel Outdoor Inc. and businesswoman Barbara Fouch.
The jury also awarded Corey $9 million in punitive damages. Clear Channel was ordered to pay $8.5 million and Fouch $500,000.
The verdict was an embarrassment for Hartsfield-Jackson and City Hall that recalled the political maneuvering and outright corruption that came to symbolize the operation of the airport during the 1980s and 1990s.
The city said it will appeal Monday's verdict.
"The city is disappointed with today's verdict in the litigation involving the 2002 airport advertising procurement," Peter Andrews, Atlanta's acting city attorney, said in a statement. "The city maintains that the process used in the airport advertising procurement was fair and lawful and that all those involved acted with integrity. The city respects the judicial process, but does not believe the verdict is supported by the evidence presented at trial."
Corey charged the city violated his rights and its own bidding rules in awarding the contract to Clear Channel and Fouch, its minority partner, whose business interests at the airport go back to 1981.
Clear Channel and Fouch won the 2002 contract, though Corey contended in his suit, filed in 2004, that his bid was better and would have netted the city more revenue.
Corey said his firm would rebid for the contract the next time the city opens it up. A self-made millionaire who grew up poor in Cabbagetown, Corey complained the contract hadn’t been bid since 2002, when he said he made the best offer for the $9 million contract.
“It [the contact] has been in the same hands for 30 years. That is what this fight is all about,” he said. “After getting into this thing, I saw how corrupt [the process] was.”
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation in 2002 found that the majority of airport contracts were awarded to campaign contributors and close friends of former mayors Maynard Jackson and Bill Campbell.
One longtime legal observer said the city's history with airport contracts has been questionable dating back to the 1970s.
"There's been a great deal of cronyism, no-bid contracts, contracts that expired and not rebid for years and I'm not surprised at the result," said Emmet Bondurant, a principal in the Atlanta law firm, Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore and former chairman of the Georgia chapter of Common Cause Georgia, a non-profit, non-partisan citizens' public watchdog group.
Common Cause Georgia sued Atlanta in the 1990s over its handling of an airport parking contract.
Bondurant said the Corey case highlights the need for a pay-for-play law in Georgia, similar to what other state and city governments have adopted in recent years. Such laws bar people and businesses seeking government-related contracts from contributing to the political campaigns of mayoral, city council and county commission candidates and from giving gifts to other government employees.
"The airport and the concessions contracts have been a fatted cow for which a lot of politicians have wanted a cut for a long time," Bondurant said. "The bidding process at the airport in many instances has been suspect if not outright corrupt."
The most infamous case involving Hartsfield came in 1993, when seven politicians and vendors were found guilty of federal bribery charges. Two city councilmen, D.L. "Buddy" Fowlkes and Ira Jackson, who subsequently served as the city's aviation commissioner, went to prison.
Campbell's administration was later rocked in 1997 in a pay-for-play case. Developer Ronnie Thornton, seeking a dirt-hauling contract for the construction of the airport's fifth runway, pleaded guilty to making a $126,000 donation to Campbell's election campaign. Thornton had subsequently been awarded a $2 million no-bid contract.
It was that string of corruption that Corey's attorneys, Darren W. Penn and Jeffrey R. Harris, sought to link with Fouch, who was close friends with Jackson and his family, and godmother to one of his children.
At trial, they presented jurors with two memos, one in which Fouch asked Clear Channel for a $50,000 fund to assist in "securing the continuation of the contract," and the other highlighting a $25,000 donation to Atlanta after the 2008 tornado that struck downtown.
The $50,000, according to the memo, would be put in a separate "airport contract proposal fund" that would be under Fouch's control for "when I need to take selected actions deemed necessary for the retention of the Atlanta contract," she wrote.
But in testimony, she said the $50,000 was for civic contributions to arts groups and other organizations. The $25,000 gift was to help the city in a time of need, Fouch said, and should not have been construed as an effort to curry favor with city officials.
"It has nothing to do with the rules of the airport," Fouch said. "It has to do with how business is done."
But the most damning testimony came from Angela Gittens, Hartsfield-Jackson's former general manager from 1993-1998, who testified Campbell barred her from putting that same contract out to bid in 1996. Gitten said Campbell told her Fouch was his friend and he didn't want her "hurt" by a rebidding.
"At some point, the mayor told me not to bid it out, not to tender it, " Gittens testified in the videotaped deposition, recounting her conversation with Campbell. "She was a friend of his."
City attorneys tried to block jurors from seeing the deposition, but were unsuccessful.
In presenting their defense, city attorneys focused jurors' attention on Corey's relative inexperience with airport billboard advertising compared with Clear Channel.
They noted the company's sole airport experience was handling the advertising at the Columbus, Ga., airport, which at $16,000 a year, generated less in revenue than what Clear Channel generates per day at Hartsfield-Jackson.
Delta Air Lines, the largest carrier at the airport, declined comment.