Supervisors Delay Airport Contract Amid Accusations They Violated Bidding Rules

County of Orange

A private business jet at John Wayne Airport.

Orange County supervisors this week held off on awarding a major contract at John Wayne Airport, after being accused of violating federal rules requiring them to choose the firm that ranked the highest in the county’s bidding process.

In a pair of letters to federal authorities, Orlando-based Signature Flight Support noted that the county’s evaluation panel selected it as the top-ranked firm for the lucrative contract to service corporate jets and other general aviation aircraft.

“Nonetheless, Signature was not awarded [the] lease,” states one of the letters, sent Feb. 10 to the Federal Aviation Administration. “Instead, the County Board of Supervisors—behind closed doors—repudiated the objective, established minimum standards they had adopted and awarded Signature’s [airport] lease to ACI Jet.” 

The letter goes on to claim that ACI, which was ranked fifth by the county’s evaluation panel, “failed to meet the minimum standards sets by the County.”

“The County’s leasing decision was arbitrary and capricious and in violation of state and local law requiring the fair and objective procurement and award of government contracts,” the letter states.

Signature’s attorneys also sent a similar letter Monday to the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The letters asked both agencies to launch investigations.

(Click here to read the letter to the FAA and here for the letter to the inspector general.)

In addition to the letters, Kathryn B. Thomson, a former chief counsel of the Federal Aviation Administration who was hired by Signature, alleged during the meetings’ public comment period that supervisors violated federal rules.

On Tuesday, supervisors were slated to vote again on whether to award the contract to ACI. But the letters, and the comments from Thompson, prompted them to delay a decision until at least their Feb. 28 meeting.

County Counsel Leon Page told supervisors that after a “quick read” of the claims, his staff didn’t believe the allegations have merit.

But supervisors Todd Spitzer and Lisa Bartlett had concerns, with Spitzer noting that Thompson “has some pretty impressive credentials that are compelling enough” for supervisors to take some time to understand the situation better.

He and Bartlett asked that Page’s office do a more “in-depth analysis” of the allegations. Bartlett went so far as to say the letter raised a lot “troubling” points and “valid arguments that are compelling enough” to warrant a closer look.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson, who has supported ACI, wanted to make sure that there weren’t further delays after that meeting. The delay, he said “is a victory in a sense” for Signature, who he said could again send a last-minute letter again to try to delay.

For over two decades, Signature and Texas-based Atlantic Aviation have held no-bid contracts for the airport’s “fixed-base operation” services, which include fuel, hangars, parking, rental, and maintenance for the aircraft that don’t fly out of the normal passenger terminals.

Supervisors say they’ve heard numerous complaints from individuals and business owners about Signature and Atlantic, and some have spoke up at recent meetings.

The complaints have largely focused on fuel prices, which have been significantly higher than market-rate.

In response to the concerns, Signature officials said they have long given discounts to nearly all of their customers, and both companies have since reduced their fuel prices by over 30 percent.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.