Airport chief's send-off funded by contractors, tenants

About 250 people are expected to attend the invitation-only event at the Georgia International Convention Center on Monday evening.

According to the airport, no public money is involved, though airport employees have spent time organizing the event, which comes as 67 of their colleagues are being laid off amid budget cuts.

Hartsfield-Jackson managers said the airport is coordinating the event with the Airport Area Chamber of Commerce, which collected checks.

“The airport area chamber is taking the lead with the sponsorships,” said Tracy Gilbert, a special programs manager.

Chamber executive director Neil Harris said the airport asked for assistance in handling money for the event “so there wouldn’t be any question about the money.” However, he said the chamber did not solicit the contributions.

The largest contributor is HNTB Corp., an engineering and construction firm that does business with the airport, which said it is contributing $5,000.

Other sponsors include Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, the largest airline tenant at Hartsfield-Jackson. “Delta is pleased to be able to support the celebration of Ben DeCosta’s leadership . . . ,” an airline statement said. “Delta looks forward to continuing its positive relationship with the mayor, the city council and the airport manager in the years ahead.”

AirTran Airways, also a major tenant, was asked but did not contribute. AirTran is currently in talks on a new lease.

“It was a function of budget and timing,” said AirTran spokesman Tad Hutcheson. “We very much wish Mr. DeCosta well.”

Gilbert said the event was organized in recent weeks and DeCosta did not know details. “We were trying to lightly surprise him,” she said.

DeCosta is leaving his airport job June 30 after more than a decade at the airport’s helm, and no successor has yet been named.

The citys ethics board’s guidelines for fund-raising solicitations by city officials say they “should not target prohibited sources such as those that do business with the city . . . “ The guidelines say an exception can be made if the solicitations are part of a “broad public appeal” for money.

Patricia Harned, president of the Ethics Resource Center, a research organization in Arlington, Va., said there’s “a fine line between leveraging your business contacts and associates, and asking for a contribution where you’re actually placing pressure on people to give money where they wouldn’t feel comfortable.”

“Without knowing how those actual conversations were happening, it’s hard to say which,” she said.

Myrna White, director of public affairs at Hartsfield-Jackson, said, “We did everything possible to make sure” donors did not feel pressured.

AirTran’s Hutcheson said he got an e-mail soliciting a sponsorship from the airport’s office of public affairs but did not feel pressured.

“It was just an e-mail and I get a ton of e-mails like that all the time,” Hutcheson said.

City Council member Felicia Moore, who sits on the transportation committee that oversees the airport, said she hopes organizers checked with the city ethics office to ensure no real or perceived conflict with the ethics code. She said she hoped to attend the event, but was not aware of how it was funded.

Bill Bozarth, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said the airport and its contractors should keep an arm’s-length relationship, especially in light of past contracting scandals at Hartsfield-Jackson.

Bozarth noted that other events such as mayoral inaugurals are paid for by private donors. A send-off event for departing Cobb Commissioner Chairman Sam Olens at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre earlier this year was funded by private contributions raised by a committee of business leaders, said Cobb County spokesman Robert Quigley.

“It’s just another way, if you will, for those who use money to win influence,” Bozarth said.

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