Lawsuit targets Georgia Tech’s handling of campus dining contract

Amid the contracts that Sodexo has had at Georgia Tech was the one to provide food and drinks at the Rolling Stones concert on campus in June 2015. ROBB D. COHEN / SPECIAL
Amid the contracts that Sodexo has had at Georgia Tech was the one to provide food and drinks at the Rolling Stones concert on campus in June 2015. ROBB D. COHEN / SPECIAL

Georgia Tech’s recent selection of a new vendor to manage its multimillion-dollar campus dining operations has the company that lost the bid wondering if something was rotten in the decision-making process.

The company, Sodexo, filed a lawsuit late last month against Georgia Tech President G.P. "Bud" Peterson and the University System of Georgia, accusing the school of withholding documents that it believes may show some top officials who resigned last year in an ethics scandal favored the other company, Aramark, in the selection process. The University System oversees operations at Georgia Tech and 25 other state colleges and universities.

The lawsuit is the latest in a string of questions about Tech's ethics that have emerged in recent months, including several violations discovered by the school's chief auditor that led to the resignations. Peterson has since revamped his leadership team, fired some top officials and made efforts to improve its ethics culture and training. It also prompted a flood of new complaints by employees of ethics violations and scrutiny of Georgia Tech's internal investigative process, which has been slow. Peterson announced last month plans to retire later this year. Georgia Tech announced last week it's hiring a new chief compliance officer.

Legal documents show Sodexo is suspicious, citing the ethics violations and the lack of some records it believes exists.

“It is implausible that the individuals involved in supervising campus dining did not use either their personal phones/tablets or work phones/tablets to communicate about … campus dining, Aramark, Sodexo, and/or the RFP,” Sodexo’s attorneys said in its lawsuit complaint, filed in Fulton County Superior Court. “It is also difficult to believe that Georgia Tech did not capture any such text messages or personal emails in connection with the investigation it performed regarding (Paul) Strouts and (Lance) Lunsway during 2018.”

Lunsway was executive director of parking and transportation services, and Strouts was vice president of campus services. Both men resigned after an internal review by Georgia Tech’s chief auditor found several ethics violations. The findings included information that Strouts had asked Sodexo to let him use its football suite in 2015 so he could entertain people he had previously worked with at Florida State University, along with family and friends.

The Sodexo complaint includes other disturbing allegations that Tech is withholding information that could embarrass the school.

“On information and belief, at some point prior to the issuance of the RFP, Paul Strouts directed his assistant to send Sodexo’s financial information to Aramark. However, no records regarding such a transmittal have been produced by Georgia Tech,” Sodexo’s attorneys wrote.

Georgia Tech referred questions about the lawsuit to the University System, which declined comment, citing pending litigation. An Aramark spokeswoman said the company is “pleased to have received a notice of intent” from Georgia Tech for the contract, but declined further comment.

Aramark and Sodexo, along with the Compass Group, are the top three food and beverage providers in the nation. For example, they battle over vending contracts for National Football League teams and in health care. Sodexo says on its website it provides food service, accommodations and facilities management services to over 1,000 universities, colleges and independent schools in the United States.

Sodexo has been the campus dining provider at Georgia Tech since 1997, according to the lawsuit complaint. The dining services contract is one of the most lucrative at the Midtown Atlanta campus. Sodexo made about $29 million from Georgia Tech during one recent 12-month period. The contracts included suite catering and guest meals in residential dining halls. The company even had the contract to provide food and drinks at the Rolling Stones concert on campus in June 2015.

Sodexo filed a complaint with the state’s Department of Administrative Services at the end of November, almost two weeks after Georgia Tech announced it intended to go with Aramark. The contract is currently on hold as the state agency reviews the complaint. Sodexo was scheduled to submit additional documents last week.

Sodexo believes the former Georgia Tech administrators and others “were allowed to erase material, including what would be responsive records, from their personal and work devices and accounts.”

“Georgia Tech has not produced any documents explaining how, when, or why those criteria were adopted and/or weighted. When asked, Georgia Tech asserted on January 11, 2019, that there are no documents that discuss how the scoring criteria for the RFP were developed,” they wrote.

A Sodexo spokeswoman declined to answer specific questions about the lawsuit claims.

“We remain optimistic that if given the opportunity, Sodexo can blend its strong track record for customer satisfaction and community engagement with new culinary innovations at Georgia Tech,” the company said in a statement.

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