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Orange County supervisors today are set to approve plans that could spike private jet traffic at John Wayne Airport, amidst a process choc full of corruption concerns from residents alongside significant political jockeying and public infighting among the companies competing for the three lucrative contracts.

Several county supervisors have been called out regarding their handling of the private jet contracts.

County Supervisor’s Chairwoman Michelle Steel has been called out for campaign contributions she took for her congressional bid from ACI Jet, one of the companies vying for the private jet contracts.

OC Democratic Party officials have raised concerns about County Supervisor Andrew Do’s appointment of a lobbyist with connections to the airport industry to represent the First District on the OC airport commission. 

And county Supervisor Lisa Bartlett has been called out because her former campaign manager is a lead lobbyist for one of the firms advocating for Bartlett’s choice for private jets, Clay Lacy.

Bartlett, who was the only supervisor who responded to Voice of OC questions Monday, said her past association with the lobbyist ended years ago.

Caught in the middle of all this jockeying are homeowners neighboring the airport, some of whom would be most directly affected by any shift in airport operations and fear a private jet expansion at John Wayne would increase the amount of noisy planes and air pollution over their homes.

Namely, airport expansion foes like Newport Beach resident Susan Dvorak have repeatedly asked county supervisors and staff to restrict space at the airport for smaller planes and limit the facilities’ capacity for larger, noisier jets. 

After all, she pointed out in a Monday letter to officials, the two companies set to contract with the county and become full-service hangar operators at the airport — ACI Jet and Clay Lacy Aviation — have themselves agreed to those commitments in writing. 

Both companies, in letters to the board, also supported the idea of not constructing a general aviation facility, which airport expansion opponents fear would attract more private jets and international clientele, if that was the wish of county officials.

Supervisors had the opportunity to write those requirements into any leases ahead of time at a meeting last month, but refused to do so.

The final contracts between the county and ACI Jet and Clay Lacy are up for approval at today’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

A plane arrives at John Wayne Airport on Aug. 28, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

ACI and Jay’s Aircraft Services, which is pursuing a limited services facility contract, currently already operate out of the airport. 

The three companies would service hundreds of propeller planes, helicopters and other small, non-airline aircraft flying in and out of John Wayne, a role formally known as a “Fixed Base Operator” (FBO).

The expected final contract vote comes one month after county supervisors agreed to move forward with the three companies to flesh out and negotiate their contracts to overhaul the small plane hangars and operate them for 35 years. 

But it’s not going through without objections and criticism by supervisors’ political foes and the aviation companies who sought the same full-service operator contracts but lost their bids to the companies up for contract today.

Supervisor Steel — whose district encompasses the airport and most affected communities — has come under fire from her political opponent in this November’s election, 48th District Congressman Harley Rouda, for taking tens of thousands of dollars from ACI Jet for her congressional campaign. 

Steel didn’t respond to phone calls and text messages seeking comment Monday.

Federal Election Commission campaign finance records show direct employees and executives with ACI Jet in total contributed $19,600 to her congressional campaign. 

“Chairwoman Michelle Steel solidified her status as Orange County’s most corrupt politician by awarding an exclusive bid for a 35-year contract to one of her top donors,” said Rouda in an Aug. 12 statement attached to his campaign website, one day after the vote.

On top of that, Democratic Party of Orange County officials have recently called for an investigation into Supervisor Andrew Do, a Republican, over his appointment of lobbyist Bert Ashland to the county airport commission. 

Ashland works for SCS Engineering, a Long Beach-based company that “provides environmental services to airports and other publicly owned facilities,” according to a DPOC statement released Monday. 

The lobbyist has been present for airport commission meetings since July 15, and was present Aug. 5 when the commission unanimously approved recommendations in favor of ACI Jet, Clay Lacy, and Jay’s Aircraft Maintenance to become fixed base operators at the airport. 

Do didn’t respond to phone calls and text messages seeking comment Monday night, and attempts to reach Ashland for comment through an email posted to the county’s lobbyist registry were unsuccessful.

The scheduled vote today has also prompted objections from rival aviation companies like Atlantic Aviation — which unsuccessfully bid for the contracts — with lawyers for the company filing requests for public records around the county’s initial calls for the airport contract bids and through legal memos demanding the county delay the vote.

One letter from Rutan & Tucker, the law firm representing Atlantic Aviation, alleges county staffers are “fast tracking” the decision on the contracts: 

“Specifically, that it is scheduled to be before the Board of Supervisors on September 15, 2020, rather than in November as previously publicly announced,” the firm’s letter to the county reads. 

A tentative schedule of the lease negotiation process on the airport website indicates a decision is supposed to be made in the “4th Quarter of 2020.”

Reached for comment, airport spokeswoman Deanne Thompson said it was possible the contracts could have come back to the board in November but added “that was an estimate” and that “as soon as they (the negotiations) were complete, it was reasonable to put it on the board agenda.”

Another firm representing Atlantic Aviation, O’Melveny & Myers LLP, submitted a protest letter to the county asking for a vote on the contracts to be delayed. 

The county’s top lawyer, Leon Page, said on Monday that complaint “lacks merit.” 

“There is, as far as I’m concerned, no legal reason that the board can’t approve the leases tomorrow,” he said.

Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, who voted along with supervisors Steel and Andrew Do back in August to move forward with the three companies up for contract today, denied any claims that supervisors or county staff were fast-tracking the process to Voice of OC on Monday. 

“This is not being fast tracked. This process has been going on for nearly four years and is now coming to the Board of Supervisors for a decision,” Bartlett said. 

She also denied any notion that her past association with a current lobbyist for Clay Lacy, Jeff Corless, had an influence on her vote to move forward with the company on Aug. 11. 

Corless was Bartlett’s campaign manager for supervisor but their contract ended about six years ago in 2014, she said, adding she and Corless haven’t had contact since, even when she ran for reelection in 2018.

“I was unopposed and not under contract (with him) at that time,” she said. 

“There are no transparency concerns regarding Jeff Corless and my original Supervisor campaign in 2014,” she argued, later adding “I have no affiliation whatsoever with Clay Lacy Aviation.”

Aircraft stationed at John Wayne Airport on Aug. 28, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A debate over the merits of Atlantic Aviation versus Clay Lacy has also played out in the opinion section of Voice of OC. 

Gary Standel, owner of West Coast Charters — a charter plane service and tenant at John Wayne Airport — in an Aug. 31 op-ed partly criticized supervisors for selecting Clay Lacy over Atlantic Aviation despite Atlantic scoring higher than Clay Lacy during the bidding process.

“Despite Atlantic Aviation being rated the most qualified (FBO) by the County, last week three members of the Board of Supervisors voted to enter into exclusive contract negotiations with Clay Lacy, a Los Angeles company that only received a score of 78.6,” Standel wrote. 

Steel before the board’s Aug. 11 vote said “I have a reason why I chose Clay Lacy over Atlantic, even though Atlantic got the higher score. Because first, that community and airport commission and they all supported CLA over Atlantic.”

She also cited the controversy that surrounded Atlantic Aviation for allegedly colluding with another operator to ramp up fuel prices: “That’s the reason that we started this process.”

In response to similar claims made by SoCal Pilots Association Fred Fourcher, a supporter of the supervisors’ choices for the contracts, Atlantic Aviation executive Sue Sommers wrote: 

“These statements are completely false and defamatory. Atlantic has never engaged in pricing fixing. Nor would it ever do so—period. Atlantic has never engaged in unfair pricing practices. Nor would it ever do so—period.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

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