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The LAX concessions lobby

L.A. city officials are in the spotlight as they scrutinize airport food and beverage contracts.

July 27, 2010

To frequent fliers, the proposal to replace Los Angeles International Airport's stale array of restaurants and shops probably doesn't seem very controversial; in a recent J.D. Power survey of airport quality, passengers ranked LAX 19th out of the 20 biggest airports in the U.S., and gave its fast-food chains and other eateries two stars out of five. But then, those fliers aren't subject to a big lobbying campaign by the current operators, which stand to lose six-figure contracts if city officials kick them out.

What seems like an easy decision is clearly tormenting City Councilman Tony Cardenas, for example. Confronted with a recommendation by the staff of Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LAX, for a sweeping overhaul of concessions, Cardenas replied with a 30-point questionnaire probing LAWA's choices in extraordinary detail. Interestingly, Cardenas planned a fundraiser Thursday to kick off his reelection campaign at El Paseo Inn, which is owned by a company that stands to benefit from his decision on the LAX contracts — it was rejected by airport staff for a restaurant slot. After the LA Weekly reported on the apparent conflict, Cardenas switched the event to another restaurant.

The contractors recommended by LAWA would include outlets from acclaimed L.A. chefs such as Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken and Joachim Splichal, and a bakery from Homeboy Industries, an inner-city group that helps former gang members go straight. But rejected incumbents HMS Host, Delaware North and the Hudson Group aren't giving in without a fight. They have complained from the beginning that the bidding process was flawed, only to have their objections tossed out by the L.A. city attorney's office. Their lobbying drive continues unabated.

Ordinarily, such airport contracts would be awarded by the Board of Airport Commissioners, but a conflict of interest for Chairman Alan Rothenberg, who owns stock in a company involved in the bidding, left the decision to the City Council's Board of Referred Powers, made up of five council members and chaired by Cardenas. The switch doesn't seem to have removed the possibility of conflicts. Councilwoman Janice Hahn, for instance, who also sits on the board, received $40,000 in contributions from LAX concession companies and their lobbyists during her failed campaign for lieutenant governor, according to the LA Weekly. Like Cardenas, she has questioned LAWA's decision-making process.

There's no evidence of anything illegal going on at the board — just politics as usual. But as carefully as Cardenas and Hahn are scrutinizing the contracts, voters will be scrutinizing their actions.

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