Bill Torpy at Large: Mayor punches Southwell's ticket, Southwell punches back

When we last left Mayor Kasim Reed, he was bobbing and weaving like Joe Frazier trying to avoid a Muhammad Ali fusillade.

The scene was the press conference a couple weeks ago after he fired airport manager Miguel Southwell, and Hizzoner was employing all his lawerly, blustery acrobatics to not say why.

The mayor said he couldn’t talk about the firing because he worried about litigation, although under Georgia law bosses can hire and fire employees because they didn’t comb their hair. But Reed’s reticence to discuss reasons came minutes after a discourse on how tiring it is to repeatedly defend his honor and vanquish his critics.

“Everyone who knows me knows I don’t fear litigation, ” he said, later adding, “I’ll tell you this, I’m not going to be hamstrung by threats. You have something to say about me? Put it up.”

Well, Southwell appears to be putting up.

Southwell hired lawyer Lee Parks, who specializes in whistleblower cases, to write Reed a letter hinting litigation is down the road.

Parks noted that officials acting on behalf of the “second floor” — City Hall-speak for “The Mayor” — said some concessions and construction contracts should “be awarded to companies other than the highest-ranked bidder in the procurement process.”

Then Parks traveled the well-worn accusation/question route: “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?”

The mayor responded that 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.”

Mark Trigg, the city’s hired legal gun, also fired back. “This is not the first time angry and frustrated third-parties have recklessly contended, without any evidence whatsoever, that the Mayor has attempted to improperly interfere with the established procurement protocols” at the airport, he said.

Trigg, channelling Hizzoner, said that if Southwell is “brazen” enough, then he should go ahead and “file a frivolous lawsuit.” But if he does, he’ll end up like a squished bug under Reed’s polished wingtip.

So, Southwell is either an unemployed hack resorting to legal blackmail to squeeze out a settlement, or a heroic professional willing to sabotage his career to expose a rotten system and a meddling mayor.

Southwell, no doubt, knows such accusations about the airport light a fuse under the explosive device that is Mayor Kasim Reed’s temper.

Under the final term of former Mayor Maynard Jackson, there was rampant corruption at the airport now half-named for him, leading to convictions of contractors and two city councilmen. Three other councilmen were accused of taking bribes but were not indicted. One of them, Bill Campbell, postponed the heavy-lifting corruption until he succeeded Jackson as mayor, when he had a contractor providing fill dirt for a new runway pay him $130,000 in illegal campaign contributions.

Reed in no way wants to be connected with anything described in the previous paragraph. He wants to make a chunk of money lawyering after leaving office and then take a shot at some more lofty political seat. He worries that some bad scandal at the airport will erupt on his watch and that some of that runway dirt will forever stick to his legacy.

It’s hard to understate Hartsfield-Jackson’s importance.

Former airport general manager Ben DeCosta once put it this way: “It’s like an ant colony. From a distant perspective, it’s hard to understand it. But it all has a purpose. It all makes sense.”

The world’s busiest airport is a status symbol for the city, an economic engine for the region — 40,000 jobs, and a boon to politicians. They don’t just call vendors — and those who aspire to vendorhood — to ask for campaign contributions. They walk up pushing wheelbarrows

The process of who gets what when it comes to contracts and work can be Byzantine. Airport officials review and score bids and proposals and the city’s procurement department weighs in. Scoring on work can be subjective. For instance, Southwell’s lawyer alleged that the mayor’s minions pushed to have a top-ranked construction management firm passed over by the third-ranked firm.

Such firms are given points — totaling 100 — on such things like “key personnel” (30), “management plan” (10) and “overall experience, qualifications and performance” (25). It’s kind of like a beauty contest for engineers. Proposals may be kicked out of the running for minor glitches. Or technicalities may be overlooked.

It says so in the request for proposal: “The city reserves the right to reject any proposal or all proposals or to waive any technical defect in a proposal.”

Some things are fair and some things are not fair. And kind of hard to prove.

But my money is on Southwell walking off with a check.