Fired Atlanta airport exec threatens legal action

The former head of the Atlanta airport, fired by Mayor Kasim Reed two weeks ago, has hired a law firm known for wrongful termination suits and whistleblower cases.

Miguel Southwell, who was general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson International, retained Parks Chesin & Walbert to represent him, according to a letter to Reed’s office from attorney Lee Parks.

The letter says Southwell was told his dismissal was due to recent long lines at the airport. But it suggests the mayor’s office wanted more control over contracts to be awarded during an upcoming wave of construction and remodeling projects.

“It is inexplicable that you would claim that the long lines at the security check points were the reason for Mr. Southwell’s termination when you knew the solution (which was sent to you for review) was days away from implementation,” the letter said.

“Is it a coincidence that the termination came on the eve of the award of some of the most lucrative contracts in the airport’s long and difficult history of patronage-based awards?”

Reed in a written statement responded: “Miguel Southwell is struggling to rescue what remains of his career and this is evident in the fact that he is now making false statements against my Administration and me.”

Reed said Southwell “never filed a complaint or made the false allegations he now makes today while unemployed. Mr. Southwell was an at-will employee and served at the pleasure of my appointment, according to state law. This is a desperate attempt to salvage his reputation.”

Southwell led the world’s busiest airport for two years and has been replaced on an interim basis by its chief financial officer, Roosevelt Council.

At a press conference after the ousting, Reed voiced concern about long Transportation Security Administration lines and other issues at the airport but declined to give specific reasons for firing Southwell, citing concerns about potential litigation.

The letter from Southwell’s lawyer said the firm is “initiating an investigation” into the termination and asked for documents and other information from the city. Parks’ letter said “we hope the City will participate in settlement discussions or mediation at the conclusion of our investigation.”

Southwell was “given just thirty minutes to make a major career decision and then ‘bull rushed’ out the door when he refused to resign, according to Parks’ letter, dated May 31. Southwell, who made $221,000 a year, was offered three months severance, the letter said. It said he did not have a chance to clean out his office or pick up personal belongings.

The letter cited other tensions between Reed and Southwell, alleging Reed last year “made a statement to Mr. Southwell that you (Reed) thought he went out of his way to be independent of you, provided examples, and also made a statement to the effect that, ‘You worked in Miami. I thought you knew how things work,’ that can only be interpreted as a blunt reference to Miami International Airport’s own long and difficult history of patronage-based awards.”

Southwell began his airport career in Atlanta but spent time at Miami International before returning to Hartsfield-Jackson.

The Atlanta airport is embarking on a massive $6 billion expansion and renovation. Some contracts have been held up over disagreements on terms and timing.

The letter from Southwell’s attorney said airport managers got “direction from senior officials of the City’s Procurement Department to take a number of actions that would impact the award of active procurements of concession and construction contracts … by causing the contracts to be awarded to companies other than the highest-ranked bidder…”

It said such directions came “from the ‘second floor’ or ‘the Mayor.’”

Mark Trigg, an attorney representing the city, responded to Parks, writing that “the implicit suggestion in your letter that there was any connection whatsoever between the termination of your client’s at-will employment and the airport’s procurement process is ridiculous, defamatory and has absolutely no basis in fact.”

Trigg’s firm, Greenberg Traurig, also represented the city in lawsuits challenging airport concessions contract awards several years ago.

Other recent issues at the airport include differing opinions on how deals should be structured between the airport, City Hall, and the many businesses that operate out of Hartsfield-Jackson including Delta Air Lines, contractors and taxi drivers. Issues have included concerns about contracting delays, cancelled procurements and disqualifications.

Parks’ letter said Reed also saw Southwell’s insistence on fingerprint checks for ride-share drivers as an obstacle in the mayor’s desire to have Uber X and Lyft pickups approved.

Trigg’s letter said the city will preserve documents as requested in the letter, but added: “If your client and your law firm truly believe that your client has a cause of action against the City, then file a frivolous lawsuit. You can rest assured that it will be vigorously and aggressively defended.”

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