Atlanta airport official on leave after conflict of interest concerns

Nov 24, 2017
KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
JANUARY 30, 2017 ATLANTA Mayor Kasim Reed talks with the Atlanta Journal Constitution editorial board Monday, January 30, 2017. Kent D. Johnson/AJC

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has placed a high-ranking official at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on leave for possible conflict of interest – news that was immediately turned into political ammunition in the campaign to pick his successor.

The action was taken against Cortez Carter, deputy general manager at the airport, whose wife owns a company that does business in Washington with Hojeij Branded Foods (HBF), which has contracts to provide concessions.

“The City is also in the process of reviewing all current and pending contracts with the vendor,” a spokeswoman for Reed said Friday. “We take this matter very seriously. If any violations of protocols, ordinances or policies are found to have taken place, we will address the situation immediately and without hesitation.”

VIDEO: Previous coverage on airport concessions questions

Two city leaders are going back and forth over the mayor's last few months in office.

The connection between Hojeij and Carter is through his wife, Charisse Works, who is the owner of AirWorks Concessions. That company was chosen in 2015 as a Hojeij partner with a 10 percent stake in a restaurant at Reagan National International Airport, according to Hojeij.

Hojeij Branded Foods’ presence at Hartsfield-Jackson is not new.

But as reported earlier this month by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Hojeij has recently been picked to run other businesses in a number of commercial spaces at Hartsfield-Jackson, concessions that are expected to mean revenues of tens of millions of dollars.

Those selections are still subject to Atlanta City Council approval.

In a statement, Hojiej said AirWorks was part of a mentor-protégé program. The two did not work together on this Atlanta airport project or even discuss the idea.

“We believe in the integrity of the procurement process and are confident that any awards to HBF will be made based on the merits of our proposal.”

The controversy, coming in the closing days of a tough campaign, had immediate political impact before the Dec. 5 runoff.

Both cnadidates for mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms (left) and Mary Norwood have received campaign contributions from Wassim Hojeij and employees of Hojeij Branded Foods. The campaigns said the donations will be given to charity. Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“The entire situation needs to be investigated,” said Mary Norwood, one of two candidates in the run-off election. “The contracts need to be rebid. You cannot have this kind of conflict of interest going on.”

Norwood, who lost in a runoff to Reed eight years ago and has repeatedly sparred with him, said the situation illustrates a culture of corruption at City Hall.

“If I’m the next mayor, it will stop,” Norwood said. “We will completely overhaul procurement at all levels of city government, including the airport.”

Her opponent, Keisha Lance Bottoms, who has been endorsed by Reed, also said more information is needed.

If the information as reported regarding Cortez Carter is accurate, it is of significant concern and appropriate disciplinary action needs to be taken immediately, up to termination,” she said.

Carter only recently became deputy general manager at the airport, there is no indication that his wife’s relationship to Hojeij had been officially noted.

“It is unacceptable for any employee to fail to disclose conflicts of interest, and it is unacceptable for companies competing for city business to fail to disclose business, financial or personal relationships with city employees,” Bottoms said.

She pledged an overhaul of the procurement process.

Both candidates have apparently been beneficiaries of Hojeij contributions. Norwood has accepted at least $7,000 from Hojeij and Hojeij employees, Bottoms said.

Norwood’s campaign said it will donate the contributions to Georgia Works, a group that seeks to end homelessness and criminal recidivism.

Bottoms said Friday that her own campaign has received at least $17,800 from Wassim Hojeij and employees of the company, Bottoms said. “We will donate these funds to local charities today.”

Hojeij is a longtime political contributor, a status that does not stand out among the companies winning contracts at the airport.

As reported earlier this month by the AJC, Hojeij was among the concessionaires chosen to open new restaurants on Concourse E at Hartsfield-Jackson. Hojeij was also one of the companies whose previous contracts were extended, the AJC reported. Several others with extensions also had strong ties to the mayor.

According to an AJC analysis, people and entities linked to Hojeij have contributed $66,450 to the top candidates running for mayor.

Wassim Hojeij was reported by the AJC as early as 2012 to be a member of host committees for Reed campaign events. He, his relatives and people linked to his company, contributed at least $27,000 to Reed’s campaigns, the AJC reported.

Staff writers Stephen Deere and Kelly Yamanouchi contributed to this story.

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