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LAX food fight is enough to turn a person's stomach

With millions of dollars at stake, practically everybody seems to have a conflict in the debate over the awarding of airport restaurant concessions.

September 15, 2010|Steve Lopez

You might think people in the restaurant business would enjoy watching someone make sausage. But what's been going on at L.A. City Hall, where a food fight has broken out over the awarding of LAX restaurant concessions, has been sheer agony for some of the city's most famous chefs.

"It seems like a simple thing to do," Nancy Silverton of Pizzeria Mozza said during a break in the brawl Monday. "Why can't they just get it done?"

Just get it done?

Oh, sweetheart. Welcome to City Hall, where council members couldn't make a pizza together without subcommittee hearings, visits from lobbyists, an environmental impact report, an ethics investigation and half a dozen lawsuits over the choice of toppings.

Millions of dollars are at stake on the airport concessions, so naturally, battalions of lobbyists and lawyers are swarming City Hall corridors, campaign donations are piled to the ceiling, and, because of a potential conflict of interest involving one member of the airport commission, the matter was sent to a special City Council meeting where practically everybody seems to have a conflict.

At one point Monday, several hours into the hearing on retail and food contracts, Susan Feniger of Border Grill looked at me with a finger pointed at her head, as if she couldn't take another minute of it. Sitting in the same row was L.A. Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold, who looked like he had indigestion, which says a lot about a man with his reputation.

Gold is an adventurous chap who could eat flaming armadillo innards with sauteed cactus needles and feel just fine, but he appeared to be in considerable pain. At one point he got up and testified that L.A. has one of the most vibrant food cultures in the world, but the " Los Angeles airport has notoriously poor food service."

Yeah, you don't hear many raves about LAX food, so it seemed to make sense to advertise the city's diversity and cooking talent by bringing in Bertha's Soul Food, Silverton's Sputino, Border Grill Taqueria, Serenata de Garibaldi, Groundwork and LaMill coffee, a Joachim Splichal bistro, Chaya and more.

Not that an airport needs to be an eating destination, but as Border Grill co-owner Mary Sue Milliken was saying, wouldn't you like the option of fresh local offerings such as carne asada tacos, a chopped salad with cumin vinaigrette, guava and cheese empanadas, poblano and mushroom quesadillas and sweet corn tamales, whether you sit at a cafe or get takeout for the plane ride?

The correct answer is yes.

Then why is the decision dragging on and on and on?

Partly because vetting the various bids, in which concession companies represent eateries, takes time.

But come on.

If you haven't followed the reporting on this drama by my colleagues Dan Weikel and David Zahniser, allow me to connect the dots as to how the meat grinder got gummed up in April, when airport commissioners almost had the job done:

Those commissioners were disqualified by elbow-throwing City Atty. Carmen Trutanich because the commission president is on the board of California Pizza Kitchen, and Trutanich should know about conflicts, because he has gotten thousands in campaign donations from parties involved in the LAX fight.

That brings us to Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who is connected to several competing companies to the tune of $55,000 in campaign cash and has vacationed with the wife of one of the main lobbyists, and naturally that same lobbyist, John Ek, also has covered the bases with Councilman Ed Reyes ($7,500 from Ek clients and associates) and Councilman Tony Cardenas ($13,000 from clients and associates).

Don't go anywhere, readers, because I'm not done yet, not by a long shot, because Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf percolated $75,000 for L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's campaign for school board candidates while Panda Express wasn't far behind ($50,000 for the mayor's school board gambit), whereas Councilman Bernard C. Parks, whose 2008 bid for county supervisor was endorsed by Magic Johnson, made a motion Monday to award a third retail contract to a group including Johnson despite an opposing recommendation from LAX officials.

And let's not forget that Robert Philibosian, a former prosecutor and Trutanich transition team co-chairman, has been bending Trutanich's ear as a rep for one of the biggest bidders in the airport concessions game, namely HMS Host.

But my favorite nugget is that one of the bigger bidders, SSP America, has been represented by former Councilman Richard Alatorre, a Villaraigosa pal who pleaded guilty to tax evasion in 2001 after a corruption probe and who just last week was found by D.A. Steve Cooley to have been working as an unregistered lobbyist at City Hall from 2003 to 2007, and I'm wondering, readers, if you are shocked, shocked, shocked, or if you're angry, dizzy or have a headache?

Now you can see why they can't just get it done, and why on Monday, Rob White of Bertha's Soul Food stepped to the podium and screamed that what's going on "stinks to high heaven," arguing that if it's not corruption, it's too close a cousin.

Actually, L.A. has relatively strict ethical enforcement and limits on campaign donations, but there are still too many loopholes, and special interest cash flows freely. Kathay Feng of Common Cause says the LAX food fight is an example of why she's preparing a 2011 ballot measure to expand the role of public financing in local campaigns and limit donations from companies seeking city business.

Until then, bon appetit, unless, of course, you're dining at LAX.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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