Indictment could bolster state bid to take over Atlanta airport



The indictment Wednesday of a longtime Atlanta contractor on bribery and other charges added fuel to the fire for a Thursday vote in the Georgia Senate on a state takeover of the city-run Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Lohrasb “Jeff” Jafari’s companies worked on projects for the city’s watershed department and also pursued work at the Atlanta airport.

The push to create a state authority to oversee Hartsfield-Jackson had already gained more momentum than ever before, raising the prospect of a massive change for one of the most crucial engines of the Southeast's economy. Proponents have pointed to corruption at City Hall to bolster their case for a state takeover of the world's busiest airport

State Sen. Burt Jones, sponsor of a bill that would shift control of Hartsfield-Jackson, has said the airport should be operated at arm’s length from politics rather than under the control of the Atlanta mayor.

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Credit: Greg Bluestein

Jones, R-Jackson, has criticized city officials for using the airport to dole out “political favors and lucrative contracts to family members and friends.”

U.S. Attorney Byung “BJay” Pak, a former Republican state legislator, released the indictment Wednesday afternoon, the eve of crossover day — a critical deadline by which bills are supposed to pass at least one chamber in the state Legislature to remain alive. The airport bill has cleared a Senate committee and is awaiting a floor vote.

“It will definitely be a part of the discussions [on the Senate floor], along with many other indictments and investigations and prison time,” Jones said after the indictment was announced. “It just makes it an easier vote, and I think produces a clear picture for those who might be on the fence, so to speak.”

Pak said he didn’t know there was a vote Thursday on a potential state takeover of the airport. The timing of Jafari’s indictment was not related, he said.

Airport contractors are some of the biggest contributors to political campaigns. In 2017, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that people and businesses with an interest in contracts for shops at Hartsfield-Jackson — including Jafari — contributed more than $287,000 to candidates for mayor that year.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms as a candidate returned more than $25,000 in campaign contributions from Jafari’s company, its associated companies, executives and their family members, after PRAD’s office was raided by the FBI.

Jones' measure, Senate Bill 131, has stoked fierce opposition from Bottoms and other allies who have said the takeover bid is tantamount to war on the city.

“The state cannot afford this venture,” said Bottoms, “and Atlanta and the region will suffer with the disruption and uncertainty that this theft will create.”

If a state takeover proceeds, it would trigger a nasty and prolonged legal fight between the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia over a critical asset for travel, air cargo movements and economic development. It could also indelibly change the relationship between the Gold Dome and City Hall.

State lawmakers have tried repeatedly over the past decades to gain more control over the airport, failing even when the Atlanta mayor’s standing under the Gold Dome was at its lowest.

This time, though, the subtext is the growing cloud of the corruption investigation and the string of guilty pleas. Jones and his allies say the probe has given Atlanta’s airport the kind of black eye that can only heal with wholesale change.

But not everyone was convinced new leadership would translate into an improved ethical climate.

If the state gained control of Hartsfield-Jackson, “You’d have different people who make the decision as to who gets the contracts, and you’d have probably different people getting the contracts,” said Georgia Persons, a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy.“ You wouldn’t solve a problem.”

Jones, for his part, said he is modeling the airport authority in the legislation after the Georgia Ports Authority and Georgia World Congress Center Authority. “You don’t have those issues with those entities,” he said. “That is the model we’re seeking.”