FAA subpoenas Hartsfield-Jackson records in advance of audit

Delta planes at domestic gates at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Delta planes at domestic gates at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration has subpoenaed records from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, as the agency prepares for an in-depth audit of the airport's finances and investigates the potential misuse of airport revenue.

The FAA sent a subpoena to Atlanta airport general manager John Selden this month seeking “any and all unredacted legal invoices paid using revenue or funds” from Hartsfield-Jackson or any airport account from October 2012 through September 2018.

The agency has already launched an investigation into the city of Atlanta's possible misuse of airport revenue that started last year, after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article detailed how the city used millions of dollars in airport revenue to pay lawyers to respond to subpoenas from a grand jury investigating corruption at City Hall.

And now, the FAA will have more extensive legal records from Hartsfield-Jackson in hand as it begins a wide-ranging audit of seven years of the airport’s finances.

While the audit covers a broad scope of the airport’s finances, the subpoena under the heading “FAA Investigation of CITY OF ATLANTA” zeroes in on legal invoices in particular.

The city of Atlanta had previously declined to provide the legal bills in unredacted form, asserting attorney-client privilege.

The FAA originally planned to conduct an on-site review of Hartsfield-Jackson's 2012-2018 financial records starting April 22 — the date when the legal records were originally due. But the agency extended the deadline for the legal records to May 1, and airport officials now expect the FAA's financial compliance review to begin in early May.

Hartsfield-Jackson is one of a handful of airports across the country selected for a financial compliance review. This is the first time the Atlanta airport has been chosen for such a review since the audits began in 2005.

In addition to overseeing aviation safety, the FAA has rules that govern spending at federally funded airports. There are restrictions on diverting airport money away from the airport to other city departments and other uses.

The financial review can take a year to complete, according to the FAA. After information is collected on site, “we often need to request additional information and clarifications.”

The AJC has reported that the city of Atlanta often used airport revenue to pay law firms to respond to the ongoing federal investigation into corruption at Atlanta City Hall. That reporting was cited by the FAA in its July 2018 letter to Hartsfield-Jackson notifying airport leadership of an FAA investigation into the possible unlawful use of airport revenue. That letter requested about 2.5 years of records on legal expenditures, while the agency this month subpoenaed six years of legal invoices.

In preparation for the on-site visit, the FAA last month also sent Selden a list of documents it seeks to review and personnel it wants to meet with.

The documents for review include financial reports from 2012 through 2018; documents on interfund receivables/payables; transactions between the city, other governmental entities and the airport; memorandums of understanding with other city departments; general ledger accounts for airport payments; contracts; parking agreements; and legal expenses for 2015 through 2018.

The FAA also seeks to meet with the airport’s leasing manager, legal department representative, noise program manager, fire department personnel, security/law enforcement personnel, promotion and marketing manager, airline incentive program manager, leasing manager, fleet manager, art program manager and utilities manager.

In addition, the FAA is seeking a tour of airport facilities, hangars, terminals and land and facilities outside of airport operations boundaries.

Hartsfield-Jackson owns roughly 500 acres of land around the airfield, 10,000 acres in Dawson County and 9,400 acres in Paulding County.