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LAX lobbying relies on familiar faces

Lobbyists and lawyers in selection for airport concessions include former councilman, council aides, former assistant city attorney and a former district attorney.

September 21, 2010|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times

With hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts up for grabs, the companies competing for restaurant and gift shop business at Los Angeles International Airport have tapped into the deep reservoir of lobbyists, lawyers and publicists at City Hall.

But some firms have gone the extra mile by hiring professionals who moved through the so-called revolving door from city government to private practice.

Among the more than 30 people hired to shape the outcome of the contentious LAX contracting fight, roughly a third served either as city employees or political appointees. They include a former city councilman, six former City Council aides, five former city commissioners, a former assistant city attorney, one former airport executive and the man who was the City Council's top policy advisor when several current council members were still in grade school.

The crush of connected lobbyists —which also includes a former district attorney and a onetime high-level official at the Los Angeles Unified School District — has taken even veteran lobbyists aback.

"In their effort to curry favor with the City Council, all the bidders have been over the top in terms of their profile, and that effort has made this process radioactive," said Steven Afriat, one of the few city lobbyists not involved in the airport process. "That's why it's confusing and frustrating to everyone involved, including the decision-makers."

The Board of Referred Powers, a five-member panel of the City Council, voted Monday to recommend four out of five food and beverage contracts, setting the stage for a decision by the full council vote next month. At stake is the quality of the restaurants, bars and gift shops that will occupy LAX, where concessions fare poorly in customer satisfaction surveys year after year.

With so many restaurants and shops vying for business — and the opportunity to compete so infrequent — council members have seen more lobbyists in the LAX fight than on any other issue since the 1990s, when they cast a bruising series of votes on cable television franchises, lobbyist Richard Lichtenstein said.

"You have a fair number of businesses who have really never participated in this process. Whether they have lawyers or lobbyists, these folks felt they needed to have their interests represented," said Lichtenstein, who represents the airport concessions bidder known as LAX Retail Magic.

Miami-based Areas USA, which was recommended Monday for three food and beverage contracts, has retained lawyer Chris Westhoff, who retired only months ago after spending 32 years in the city attorney's office, specializing in contracting law.

The company also has relied on lobbyists Jeff McConnell, who advised former Councilman Nick Pacheco, and Arnie Berghoff, who served as the council's top policy advisor for about a decade in the 1970s and 1980s. And it received strategic advice from Paul Haney, who served until November 2008 as a deputy general manager of Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that runs LAX.

Less successful was SSP America, which was recommended by airport officials for the largest of five food and beverage contracts. The Board of Referred Powers threw out the bids on conflict-of-interest grounds, over SSP's strenuous objections.

To make its case, SSP has been relying on former Councilman Richard Alatorre, a 14-year lawmaker who pleaded guilty to felony tax evasion shortly after leaving office in 2001. The company also retained former Assemblyman Mike Roos, who served on the Recreation and Parks Commission under former Mayor James K. Hahn.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley conducted a three-year conspiracy investigation of Roos and Alatorre, part of a probe into Alatorre's practice of lobbying without registering, and recently issued a report saying their conduct did not warrant felony charges. Meanwhile, a longtime friend of Cooley, former Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian, has been lobbying on behalf of HMS Host, the concession bidder that filed the conflict complaint against SSP.

So many lobbyists are in the mix that even married couples find themselves on different bidding teams. Lobbyist Phil Tate, a former aviation advisor to Councilman Bill Rosendahl, is also working for HMS Host, which came in last in most of the airport bids and now wants the entire process thrown out.

Those efforts have been mocked in writing by lawyers for LAX Retail Magic, a venture whose legal team includes Tate's wife, lobbyist Elizabeth Smagala. While that scenario may sound like a Spencer Tracy- Katharine Hepburn comedy, attorney Ben Reznik — Smagala's boss — said he finds nothing funny about the LAX contracting process.

"It's not the first time and it's not the last time in this city where you have a husband and wife working on opposite sides of a case," Reznik said, adding: "My understanding is they don't talk about it."

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