Santana: Is the Fix in at John Wayne Airport?

County of Orange

A private business jet at John Wayne Airport.

A longstanding battle between companies over a lucrative contract at John Wayne Airport to service corporate jets, delayed for months under hard politicking by competing vendors, could go red hot today with the losing bidder calling on the federal government to investigate.

The calls for a federal probe come just as Orange County Supervisors unveil a last-minute supplemental agenda change for today’s public meeting, to rescind a contract approval from last month – potentially over open meeting laws violations. Supervisors are expected today to re-approve their action but will need a four-fifths majority.

Signature had been ranked as the top candidate by a county staff panel overseeing the request for proposals. Yet a last-minute maneuver in closed session by supervisors last month gave the contract to a low-ranked, but seemingly politically connected new bidder, ACI Jet, on a 4-1 vote with Supervisor Lisa Bartlett opposed.

After they returned from closed session, Supervisor Shawn Nelson motioned to approve ACI Jet, “whatever they’re called,” for the contract staff recommended for Signature.

He didn’t explain why he wanted ACI, which was ranked third out of the four companies that weren’t incumbents.

One of Nelson’s major donors and fundraisers – developer and helicopter pilot Mike Harrah – recently spoke to the board in favor of ACI Jet. I called Nelson for comment yesterday after I learned about the protest but didn’t hear back.

In a formal letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, one of the losing bidders – Signature Flight Support Corporation – argue that county supervisors violated FAA rules and have put public safety at risk.

“The leasing decision constitutes a violation of the County’s federal obligations, including a violation of Grant Assurance 22, Economic Nondiscrimination. It will also make SNA demonstrably less safe,” wrote attorney William V. O’Connor, who represents Signature.

The company is also calling on the FAA to step in and enforce the status quo “at SNA until such time as the FAA completes its investigation into the County’s leasing decision.”

Signature is a much larger company than ACI Jet, operating 200 locations worldwide. They appear to have cozy relationships with JWA staff as they go back several decades as a vendor.

The company and its partners also have apparently ticked off some JWA customers by overcharging them on fuel, which prompted complaints to county supervisors.

Last month, county supervisors tore into airport staff over their handling of the contract, among other things like janitorial contracts, with Bartlett saying the agency was “a mess” when the new airport director, Barry Rondinella, took over a few years ago.

Funny, I don’t remember anybody saying John Wayne Airport was a mess when former director Alan Murphy retired.

But judging from supervisors’ tirade last month, along with this protest letter calling for a federal probe, it seems all might not be well at our local airport.

This also may also be about something much larger than cheaper jet fuel for corporate executives.

The airport is another large county project that seems to be undergoing a quiet, redevelopment process, much like our civic center and Dana Point Harbor.

I’m not sure who should be providing fuel for fat cat corporate executives at JWA.

Yet this kind of procurement process definitely smells.

My experience as a journalist covering local government – as well as jeeping across Southern California and Baja desert trails – tells me when you smell something odd, check under the hood.

  • Joseph Hicks

    It’s actually quite clear. The airport put forward a clear procurement process in their RFQ as they should. Ranked them according to a defined ranking system that was spelled out in the RFQ and made a recommendation to the Board. The Board then went into a closed session and threw out the process and made a recommendation based on who knows what, castigated the airport management for following their defined process. Now they are facing FAA enforcement action and legal consequences.

  • Paul Hughes

    Rondinella has been director for 14 months.

  • michael martinez

    Where is the OC CEO?

  • OCservant_Leader

    The Airport Comtracting and Procurement function is a mess – just like all the Agencies.

    There are no procedures followed because the end justifies the means. I wish more County Workers would speak to the chaos and mismanagement on the inside.

  • David Zenger

    “Yet a last-minute maneuver in closed session by supervisors last month gave the contract to a low-ranked, but seemingly politically connected new bidder, ACI Jet, on a 4-1 vote with Supervisor Lisa Bartlett opposed.”

    This describes a Brown Act violation. You’d think they’d know by now. And what is County Counsel getting paid for?