Dispute over airport spa contract leads to year-long civil lawsuit

XpresSpa at Hartsfield-Jackson.

XpresSpa at Hartsfield-Jackson.

A year-old lawsuit over a contract for an airport spa where travelers can get massages and manicures came up in recent legislative discussions about the state taking control of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport away from the city.

A minority contractor who helped run an XpresSpa location at the airport alleges that city officials colluded with XpresSpa to oust her from the business and that people close to former Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed benefited.

“If you follow the chain of money, it goes to the mayor’s friends,” said Carl Gebo, an attorney for minority contractor Shelia Edwards and her company Cordial Endeavor Concessions.

Last week, Edwards spoke about her allegations to a panel of state legislators before they voted in favor of a bill for a state takeover of the world's busiest airport from the city of Atlanta. She told the legislators her company filed suit against the city, Reed and others for allegedly "tampering with our contract at the airport…. There are some bad apples in that bunch."

XpresSpa’s attorneys call the allegations “fabricated,” and the city in its legal filings says Edwards failed to state any viable claims in her suit.

Edwards and XpresSpa had a falling-out that led to her replacement in 2014 as a minority partner. The suit claims Bernard Parks Jr., named as a childhood friend of Reed's, became a business advisor to XpresSpa and was among the beneficiaries in the dispute.

Reed and the city filed motions to dismiss the suit. An attorney for Reed and the city, when asked for a response, sent copies of their written responses to the suit.

Reed’s attorney says in a legal filing: “Plaintiffs depict Reed as a puppeteer, vaguely alleging that the City and other officials acted ‘at the direction of Reed’ to violate their purported constitutional rights and other, so-called ‘rights’ under federal regulations.”

It continues, “While these various allegations of the Complaint are sensational, glaringly absent from the Complaint are any non-speculative, non-conclusory allegations that Reed was involved in the XpresSpa-Cordial dispute, generally, much less in the specific.”

XpresSpa’s attorneys said they “flatly deny the fabricated allegations of the Complaint,” and that XpresSpa terminated its relationship with Cordial because of Cordial’s “willful breach” of an agreement.

In the last couple of months, Edwards also appealed to city council president Felicia Moore, asking for a city council investigation into the issue. Moore referred the matter to city council transportation committee chair Andre Dickens, who was briefed on the suit behind closed doors last week. He declined to comment.

Edwards’ lawsuit is the latest in a series that rose from her dispute with XpresSpa.

Airport contracts have minority contracting goals, with specific certification requirements under federal criteria. The XpresSpa dispute stems in part from past questions about whether Cordial’s certification as a disadvantaged business changed as a result of changes in the mix of owners. After the questions arose several years ago, XpresSpa decided to find other partners to replace Cordial. Edwards cried foul.The FAA later said Cordial was and is certified.

"I don't think any small business should be treated the way I was treated," says Edwards, who is also a former chief communications officer for DeKalb County

The city of Atlanta has spent close to $1 million on outside legal counsel, including billings to the city from outside attorney William K. Whitner, a partner at law firm Paul Hastings.

Gebo says they are seeking as much as $15 million in damages, lost funds from operations and attorney’s fees in the federal case against the city, XpresSpa and others.

Meanwhile, XpresSpa continues to expand at Hartsfield-Jackson, opening a third location last year with plans for two additional locations.