Scented candles. A birthday bash. Here’s how staff spent airport funds

Candles, birthday event and funeral feast questioned in audit, but a $5,000 photo shoot of an airport executive was deemed permissible.
060122 Atlanta: General view of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, with the control tower in the background, Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz /

060122 Atlanta: General view of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, with the control tower in the background, Wednesday, June 1, 2022, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz /

An internal investigation found some expenditures by Hartsfield-Jackson International employees, including scented candles, a birthday party and catering for a funeral reception, were an inappropriate use of airport funds, according to the airport manager.

The airport launched an audit in February to look into a suspected inappropriate expenditure, then asked for a review by the city of Atlanta’s Law Department, which used outside counsel for an investigation into 343 invoices over five months in the airport’s marketing division.

The report flagged more than $6,000 in inappropriate invoices, including about $4,000 in spending that airport General Manager Balram Bheodari said could run afoul of federal rules governing use of airport revenue.

Among the expenses reviewed were airport dollars spent on a memorial service reception for a cousin of airport Chief Commercial Officer Jai Ferrell that was submitted by a marketing department employee.

A Dec. 19 invoice for $1,832 in catering for an event listed Hartsfield-Jackson and an airport marketing employee as the contact. The justification for the expense report was that it was catering for a marketing photo shoot — yet the invoice identified the event as a “repass,” an apparent reference to a repast, or a gathering after a funeral.

The menu included jerk chicken with caramelized mango, Southern-style green beans and garden rice pilaf, smoked beef brisket with three-color peppers, a Caribbean Cobb salad, along with sweet tea and lemonade.

“It was inappropriate use of airport money,” Bheodari said.

City Ethics Officer Jabu Sengova’s office has also received a complaint about airport expenses, which she said was referred to the city’s Office of Inspector General for review and investigation. The complaint referenced Ferrell and people in her department, and noted that airport funds had been used to pay for the reception for Ferrell’s family.

But Bheodari said Ferrell was not aware that airport funds were used to pay for the funeral reception catering.

“Jai was found to be innocent in all of this,” Bheodari said.

Other expenses found to be an inappropriate use of airport funds were $624 for a birthday party for an airport employee, $1,378.65 for custom candles and $307.50 for lapel pins sent to the city.

He said the expenditures constituted revenue diversion, in violation of Federal Aviation Administration policy. FAA regulations prohibit the use of airport revenue for expenses other than the airport’s capital or operating costs.

Bheodari said he informed the FAA of the investigation, told the FAA he would take “appropriate action” to recover the funds and said the FAA was “satisfied with that.”

An invoice submitted by an airport marketing executive shows the $1,378.65 order for 20 scented candles with custom foil labeling in an ”ATL Mayor” design. The candles were ordered in advance of the Mayor’s 5K on the 5th runway event at the airport.

Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens, said “the Executive Office was not aware of this purchase by the airport.”

“These are my employees who think that if they do something for the mayor’s office they will look good and not realizing — or maybe realizing deliberately — the misuse of aviation funds,” Bheodari said.

Ferrell’s mother, Lolita Ferrell, is director of administration in Dickens’ office.

The Law Department’s investigation also found invoices that had not yet been paid for $1,000 for a makeup artist and one for another $630 in candles to be inappropriate if airport funds were used. An invoice for $600 for office supplies had no supporting documentation.

The complaint filed with the city’s ethics division also said airport funds were used for photography, makeup sessions, meals and gifts.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of airport invoices found another $3,742.19 purchase of candles with an airport logo, and $450 for makeup for a photo shoot of Ferrell in December.

Also examined was a $5,000 photo shoot of Ferrell in December and $1,000 for another airport executive. The shoots, rivaling the cost to photograph some weddings, were deemed permissible, the report said, because publications had requested photos of them or they were being presented with an award. Ferrell was named as a 40 Under 40 honoree by her alma mater Georgia State University, and has also used the photos in social media posts.

Credit: Source: Instagram

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Credit: Source: Instagram

Two of the marketing employees involved in certain expenses have since left Hartsfield-Jackson. The airport’s marketing director sent a resignation letter Feb. 23, after complaints by other employees at the airport and the launch of a human resources investigation. Another marketing employee resigned last month after saying she had endured a “hostile environment” since spearheading a “Love is in the air” Valentine’s Day campaign, and noted that one of her expense reports had been rejected.

The former employees declined to comment.

Tammy Greer, an assistant professor of political science at Clark Atlanta University, who has also worked as an workplace ethics coordinator, said there should be “clear guidance for what is prohibited.” Someone could be working in marketing in the private sector and may have believed certain expenses in the public sector were appropriate, “unless they were told that the rules were different.”

The Law Department’s investigation recommended improvements in protocols for expenses and training for employees, and recommended filing of ethics complaints against the two former marketing employees.

Bheodari said he is taking action to strengthen the process for airport expenses and to improve training on what constitutes revenue diversion.