Atlanta auditor advises airport to avoid potential conflicts of interest

Airport officials say there is no conflict present in issue involving married couple on committees outlined by city of Atlanta watchdog
The atrium of Atlanta City Hall is shown, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The atrium of Atlanta City Hall is shown, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Atlanta. (Jason Getz/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

A key planning executive on the Atlanta airport’s multibillion-dollar expansion program is married to a woman who works for Delta Air Lines helping to manage the company’s real estate, and a city auditor’s report advised airport management to avoid potential conflicts of interest in the matter.

The airport executive’s wife sits on a pair of committees at Hartsfield-Jackson International for project implementation and for planning and development.

Although the airport executive, Tom Nissalke, said he’s disclosed their relationship since 2005, the city auditor flagged the couple’s involvement in the committees as a potential conflict of interest in a report on airport projects submitted to the City Council transportation committee on Wednesday.

Hartsfield-Jackson officials said there is no conflict because the two are not making decisions on airport projects on behalf of the city or Delta as part of their service on the committees.

The auditor’s report said it referred the issue to the ethics office, which is reviewing the matter. The auditor’s report also recommended Nissalke seek advice from the ethics office when potential conflicts occur.

The city of Atlanta has ethics rules that require city employees to disclose potential conflicts of interest.

The ethics office in 2019 advised that Nissalke should disclose his wife Kristi’s position at Delta to his superiors, and that Nissalke should recuse himself from decisions on any project involving his spouse, and contact his superiors and the ethics office if he is unsure whether he needs to recuse himself.

Nissalke said he has been “totally transparent” and discloses the relationship to others who work with them and to airport management and supervisors.

“We’re in numerous meetings together,” he said, but there are other people in the meetings and “we just make recommendations,” representing their respective employers. The airport’s project implementation committee is chaired by the airport’s top executive, Balram Bheodari, and Delta’s managing director of corporate real estate, Melissa White, who is senior to Kristi Nissalke.

The report did not point to any specific instance in which actual conflicts of interest were present.

The auditor’s comments were included in a report about several airport contracts and the policies and procedures to follow best practices for capital project management.

In another case, Hartsfield-Jackson’s director of ground transportation, Tracy Harrison, was sanctioned by the ethics office this year with a $2,000 fine after referring her son for a job at MTI Limo and Shuttle Services, which has a contract overseen by Harrison to handle curbside management at the airport.

MTI was officially awarded the contract in 2019, Harrison’s son was hired later that year, and MTI in 2022 was awarded a two-year contract renewal under a process managed by Harrison, the ethics office report said. During the period reviewed, Harrison did not disclose to the city that her son was employed by MTI while she was managing MTI’s contract, in violation of the city’s code of ethics, according to the ethics office.

“There was never a trigger in my mind that there would be an ethical issue,” Harrison said during an appeal hearing before the ethics board. The ethics board in March affirmed the decision on the sanction.

Harrison said there is now no conflict since her son’s employment at MTI ended last summer. Before that, the ethics office in its report said regardless of Harrison’s intentions, “the vendor sensed pressure or influence” to retain her son for employment.

The airport has put forth MTI’s curbside management contract for another two-year renewal, but the resolution was put on hold by the Atlanta City Council transportation committee Wednesday amid concerns about an increase in the contract value.