Two supervisors succeeded in overriding the results of a competitive bidding process for a lucrative food spot at John Wayne Airport.
The bidding process ranked Brodard Express last out of five, scoring 132, with the top two bids tied at 254 points – both from a Brea-based franchisee proposing a site for Jamba Juice or the OC-based chain Bruxie.
Just before the vote, Supervisor Michelle Steel acknowledged Bruxie also is a local brand, and cited a new reason for picking Brodard: that she and Supervisor Lisa Bartlett consider Bruxie’s food more difficult to carry in the airport.
“We want to bring the local flavors to Orange County when you go through the airport. And there’s two local concepts that bid – it’s Bruxie and Brodard,” Steel said at the meeting Tuesday, Aug. 27. Brodard serves Vietnamese food.
“And we found out that Bruxie is more of a sit-down option because they have a waffle and fried chicken. It’s very hard [for] people…traveling [to] try to [take it] to go. And Brodard was pastries and spring rolls offered.”
Brodard, she added, offered “great prices” on their menu, without saying whether those prices were better than Bruxie.
Bartlett and Steel, who are the board’s closed-door Airport Ad Hoc committee, wanted their colleagues to pick Brodard, whose low ranking was largely due to low scores for its business plan and finances.
Up until the Aug.27 meeting, Bartlett and Steel’s only public explanation was that Brodard would help achieve the county’s goal of adding “a local concept and flavor” to the airport’s food.
In the days leading up to the meeting, they didn’t addressed the fact that Bruxie, which tied for first place, also is a local OC brand, and that local preference already was taken into account in the bidding process where Brodard ranked last.
At the supervisor’s meeting all five voted with Bartlett and Steel to award the lease to Brodard Express.
Brodard’s family owners are “overjoyed, honestly, to be able to bring this to the airport,” said their county lobbyist, Peter Whittingham in a phone interview Thursday.
Brodard has been operating in Orange County for 30 years and is “extremely successful in each of the locations that they have, in Garden Grove, Fountain Valley and Corona del Mar,” Whittingham said.
The Brea-based franchisee who submitting the top-ranked bids, for Jamba Juice and Bruxie, said before the vote that the high score reflected the strength of his company.
“The score that we received is a validation of not only just our company, but our operations, our work culture, our history, and well as what we’ve been able to accomplish in the 13 years of…operating restaurants in military bases,” said Ajay Maini, a Brea resident who proposed the Jamba Juice and Bruxie franchises.
Maini said his local company of restaurant franchises was founded by his father, who he said “immigrated to the [United] States back in the 80s with [the] American dream in his mind and in [his] heart. And both for me and my brother, he has taught us that this is the land of opportunity. you work hard, you succeed at what you do, and success will come to you.”
Bartlett invited Maini and other bidders who didn’t get contracts to try again next time.
“If you weren’t selected today, think about bidding again” for future county leases, Bartlett said.
The airport food spots were competitive, with several bidders hiring lobbyists to represent them in the bidding process. Brodard hired Whittingham, who previously lobbied for 16 years with Curt Pringle, the influential former Anaheim mayor.
Brodard’s fifth-place score was largely due to low ratings for its business plan, financials, customer service, sustainability, marketing and financial plans, according to the final scores. Out of 90 total available points for those categories, it received 31 points – or about 34 percent.
Whittingham said he didn’t know why the bid reviewers gave Brodard low marks for its financials and business plan. But, he said, the family-run business was the only bidder who didn’t have the benefit of corporate office to help them with the application.
“This was their first government procurement opportunity. So perhaps some of the key buzzwords, key metrics…etcetera were missing, that perhaps others more experience” in the corporate world would have, Whittingham said.
“I think there’s comfort in their ability to meet the very high financial obligations of operating in the airport,” he added, pointing to Brodard’s long history in the county.
Federal regulations do not allow airport operators to have a “local geographic preference” for concession contracts like restaurant spaces, said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.
That limit applies to preferring contractors that are headquartered locally, and it appears airport operators are allowed by federal regulations to have a preference for local brands, he said.
Whittingham and his immediate family have directly contributed $3,000 to supervisors’ campaign funds this year, according to county records. Brodard executives and owners did not contribute to supervisors’ campaigns for the 10 years leading up to this year, and then contributed $1,500 in the first half of this year, according to the records.
Asked if he fundraised for the supervisors, Whittingham said that’s common for himself and other lobbyists, and that nothing improper takes place. Other bidders for the airport food lease also had lobbyists, he noted.
“I think if you start rounding us [lobbyists] up, you’d find there’s some commonalities there and that’s one of them,” Whittingham said of fundraising for the supervisors.
“I have a variety of clients at the county for whom I’ve registered on their behalf. And there’s a whole host in similar situations, and it’s something we do in our course of business. And it’s nothing beyond that in terms of anything that would be improper or create any concerns in terms of noncompliance with [contribution limits], what have you,” Whittingham said.
Over the past few years, supervisors have repeatedly awarded contracts to low-ranked bidders that donate heavily to their campaigns, hire lobbyists who fundraise for supervisors, or both.
In 2016, supervisors supervisors granted John Wayne Airport’s lucrative general aviation lease to a firm, ACI Jet, that was ranked fifth out of six by the county’s evaluation panel.
In the run-up to awarding that contract, the supervisors collected thousands of dollars in campaign donations from people who work or advocate for the companies vying for the lease.
ACI and its supporters outspent the top-ranked firm, Signature Flight Support, by 2-to-1 in contributions to supervisors in the second half of 2016, according to a Voice of OC review of campaign filings. ACI’s supporters contributed $7,700, while Signature’s supporters spent $2,750.
Signature Flight Support later filed a complaint with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) alleging the supervisors had a “bias towards its campaign donors,” citing more than $23,000 in contributions to supervisors from ACI’s supporters.
County officials declined to comment at the time, and the FAA ultimately found supervisors were acting within their authority and dismissed the complaint.
County parking contracts also have drawn scrutiny. A single company, PCI, was repeatedly awarded millions in county parking contracts, including at John Wayne Airport, after county staff recommended another vendor.
PCI’s vice president was Lyle Overby, a longtime county lobbyist who supporter supervisors’ election campaigns with tens of thousands of dollars through his Committee for Improved Public Policy.
Overby and his clients often contributed to supervisors on the same day, an Orange County Register investigation found.
John Moorlach, a supervisor at the time who now is a state senator, warned his colleagues about the situation at an August 2014 supervisors meeting. He said the number of bidders dropped drastically the next time the parking lot contract was put out to bid.
“Others I think were discouraged [from submitting bids] because of a concern that perhaps we don’t look to hire anyone other than [PCI],” he said.
In the airport food competition, Whittingham said it was not a situation where the lobbyist who raises the most money gets the contract, and that he’s never experienced that at the county.
“I don’t think that’s true in any case. Certainly it’s, just on the natural to folks to say, ‘Oh, well they donated more than anybody else.’ [In] my experience, that has not been the way any of these procurements has worked,” Whittingham said.
“To my knowledge, that has not been a situation I have been involved in,” where the understanding is, “Hey, I have to raise this much to get a spot,” Whittingham said.
“That’s just not something I’ve been aware of or seen.”
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.