Spy pen jolts talks between airport, Delta

AJC obtains documents detailing Hartsfield-Jackson chief's taped conversations

Executives from Delta Air Lines were chatting after a meeting with city of Atlanta negotiators ended when they discovered a high-tech pen on the table. It appeared to be surreptitiously recording their conversation.

Ben DeCosta, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport’s general manager, admits that he left the gadget — he loves gadgets — on the table with its recorder running. But he insists that he did not intend to record Delta’s negotiators, and he even charged later that Delta stole his pen.

The extraordinary story emerged in public documents obtained last week by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The pen is the Livescribe Pulse Smartpen, which has an on-off switch and 4 gigabytes of memory. It translates some words into Mandarin or Arabic, records audio and costs $199. It also writes.

James Greenwald, one of Delta’s representatives in the meeting, called it a “James Bond” pen. The Delta team found the pen and had planned to erase the audio it had captured.

That June evening, city records report DeCosta called a Delta executive who had attended the meeting, said he couldn’t find his pen and wanted to know who took it.

The Delta official, Harold Bevis, told DeCosta that he was disappointed the airport chief recorded the meeting and said he would erase the recording, city records show. DeCosta denied the claim and said he wanted the pen back. He later called Delta’s complaint a ploy to get him out of contract negotiations.

The city agreed, in response to a demand from Delta, to investigate the airline’s accusation against DeCosta. The investigation concluded there was insufficient evidence that DeCosta intentionally sought to record the private conversations of Delta’s team.

DeCosta declined to comment last week. He announced a month ago that, after 11 years as the airport’s top executive, he will retire when his contract expires June 30.

Delta said in a statement Friday it respected the investigation’s conclusions and considers the matter closed.

The investigation sheds light on the fractious relationship between DeCosta and Delta, particularly when it came to negotiations over extending Delta’s lease at Hartsfield-Jackson. DeCosta believed some portions of the lease extension were too Delta-friendly and could limit competition from other airlines. When DeCosta announced last month that he would leave the city in June, Delta released a one-sentence statement thanking the airport manager for his service and wishing him well.

The drama began June 9. About 20 to 30 Delta and city of Atlanta officials attended a steering committee meeting, and DeCosta said he turned on the pen’s microphone to record a presentation on construction costs, investigators wrote. DeCosta said he left the meeting briefly, and the pen was gone when he returned.

Georgia law prohibits the recording of a conversation in a private place unless one party consents. In the final eight minutes of the recording, Delta officials were the only participants in the conversation and said they had not authorized the recording.

“Mr. DeCosta’s use of the pen to record Delta’s private conversations appears to violate [state] statute and is clearly improper,” wrote Catherine O’Neil, an attorney representing Delta.

DeCosta, meanwhile, told city officials his version of the story and his suspicion of Delta’s motives.

“DeCosta stated that he believes that the issue surrounding the pen and a request for an investigation was a tactical maneuver by Delta to discredit him during the course of the negotiations since he was in staunch opposition with some of their desires ...” the investigative report says.

DeCosta told city officials he never agreed not to record any of the steering committee meetings. Delta argued that both sides understood the meetings were not to be recorded. The investigative report included an April 22 letter from Delta Vice President John Boatright to DeCosta complaining that minutes from an April 2 committee meeting contained several inaccuracies.

“We were not even aware such minutes were being prepared and assume no other recording of our meetings is occurring,” Boatright wrote.

City investigators met DeCosta at his home on Dec. 11 to listen to the pen’s recordings. There were 145 minutes of conversation between the city and Delta. After that, there were eight minutes of Delta officials talking. Those eight minutes of the recording were inaudible, investigators wrote.

An official close to the discussions said last week that the company was split internally over whether to pursue the investigation of DeCosta. This official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on this issue, said some at Delta viewed DeCosta as an impediment to negotiations and thought the pen incident might help to push him aside. Others argued that DeCosta deserved the benefit of the doubt.

The negotiations continued while the city’s law department investigated Delta’s complaint against DeCosta. Then-Mayor Shirley Franklin said the extension was “not perfect,” but she was far less critical of the deal. She viewed Delta as a trusted partner of the city and pointed to the company’s growth in Atlanta as an example of the benefits of the “partnership.” Franklin, her chief operating officer Greg Giornelli, Delta CEO Richard Anderson and other airline officials discussed the proposed deal with a group of AJC editors and reporters in late October. DeCosta was out of the country and did not attend the meeting.

The two sides approved a seven-year lease extension on Dec. 21.

Less than a month later, on Jan. 13, acting City Attorney Roger Bhandari signed off on the findings in the 10-page investigative report. DeCosta announced his plans to leave the city on Jan. 25.

Atlanta’s new mayor, Kasim Reed, has said he wants to develop a “strong relationship” with Anderson. The airline CEO says he wants the same.

As for the pen, city officials returned it to DeCosta at the end of the Dec. 11 interview.

Staff writer Jim Tharpe contributed to this article.

How we got the story

The AJC filed a request under the Georgia Open Records Act and last week received a copy of the investigative report of the matter. The report included 10 pages of background on the allegations against DeCosta and notes from interviews with him and Delta officials. The report also contained letters from Delta and their attorneys, 111 pages of information about the pen and a copy of the lease extension contract between the city of Atlanta and Delta Air Lines.

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