The Insider

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Mayor Bob Lanier is going all out to convince voters to retain the Minority, Women and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program for city contractors, which is being put to a referendum on the November 4 ballot. But a behind-the-scenes struggle over food concessions at Bush Intercontinental Airport could be playing right into the hands of Republican activist Edward Blum and others who are trying to kill Lanier's affirmative action program. If, that is, the public ever learns the full details.

Three groups have fielded competing proposals for concessions at Terminals A and B and the Leland In-ternational building, as well as two bars in Terminal C -- a prize said to be worth $200 million over the next ten years.

Two of the groups are headed by national firms that already hold city airport concessions: CA One, a Buffalo, New York-based subsidiary of Delaware North that provides food services at Hobby Airport, and Maryland-based Host Marriott Services, the current holder of the Bush Intercontinental concessions. Both groups include high-profile African-American participants, with those on the Marriott team seeming to possess more expertise in the political realm than in running restaurants and bars.

The third bidder is a group composed of four Houston families of varying ethnic backgrounds that have decades of experience in restaurant management. That consortium has accused the city's Aviation Department of designing the selection process to favor the Marriott proposal.

The CA One venture is represented by Kenny Friedman, the lawyer who oversees Lanier's blind trust, and includes African-American investor Gerald Wilson and his partner, Kirbyjon Caldwell, the influential minister of the Windsor Village Methodist Church. Wilson and Caldwell run an MWDBE company that provides concession management services at Hobby.

The Marriott team reportedly includes Melody Ellis, a former HISD board member and the sister of state Senator Rodney Ellis; lawyer Anthony Hall, an ex-councilman and former Metro chairman; and Zinetta Burney, a lawyer and former UH regent.

That lineup could not be verified with the city, since the Lanier administration was refusing to release any information on the bidders late last week. But if it's true, it would seem to confirm the contention of Blum and other critics that the city's MWDBE program favors political insiders at the expense of qualified entrepreneurs.

In addition to Hall, Burney and Melody Ellis's participation, Rodney Ellis has been widely rumored to have an interest in the popcorn vending portion of the Marriott proposal. The senator played phone tag with The Insider last week and was ultimately unavailable for comment. He did, however, leave us a recorded message in which he declared, "I do not eat popcorn, I do not eat peanuts, and I do not sell cigarettes."

That doesn't tell us whether the health-conscious lawmaker has any plans to sell popcorn at the airport, or how his sister got involved with Marriott. Rodney Ellis already has two businesses certified as MWDBEs by the city: Apex Securities and Apex Advisors.

Burney, whose law firm is a MWDBE subcontractor collecting delinquent taxes for the city, declined to elaborate on her role in the Marriott bid and suggested that it isn't information the public is entitled to know. The lawyer did say that she has been interested in getting into the food service business for years, and she rejected the suggestion that she and others had been added to the Marriott team to grease Council's acceptance of the corporation's bid.

Burney is a prominent supporter of Councilman Jew Don Boney, and her daughter was the treasurer for Boney's 1995 campaign. Boney is a member of the City Council's aviation committee. That committee will consider a recommendation on the proposals from the Aviation Department before forwarding its own recommendation to the full Council.

The third group in the fray, Four Families of Houston Inc., consists of members of the Pappas, Molina and James clans of restaurateurs (the Jameses are African-Americans who run La Trelle's Management Corporation), and Harlon Brooks of Harlon's Barbecue. Also on the team are Irma Galvan of Irma's, the downtown eatery in the vicinity of the coming Ballpark at Union Station, Darryl King, who operates an airport fried-chicken concession, and Tri La of the Kim Son restaurants. (Brooks and La are also listed as participants in the CA One bid, which may constitute a clever hedging of bets.)

Four Families is not without its own political heft, having hired consultant Bill Miller of Austin, a Lanier administration favorite, to lobby Council and work the media on behalf of its proposal.

In a letter Miller hand-delivered to councilmembers late last week, Four Families president W.A. James Jr. warned that the Aviation Department's selection process was rigged in favor of Marriott and contended that three national food-service companies declined to bid because they felt Marriott had a lock on the concessions.

James cited several "anomalies" in the process, including no requirement that the bidders prove that they can actually perform as claimed in their proposals. He also pointed out that the department's selection committee is composed of employees of outgoing Aviation Director Paul Gaines, who, according to James, is "retiring in two months to become a worldwide consultant to companies which perform precisely the type of service his staff is approving."

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