Food Fight Indigestion

A losing lobbyist claims a councilman switched after failing to get his pals in on the deal

The upset victory of Four Families for the Hobby Airport food concession last week shocked Mayor Lee Brown, who more and more is looking like a lame duck presiding over a runaway City Council. It also left the lobbyist for loser CA One charging that District H Councilman Gabriel Vasquez repeatedly tried to get his friends incorporated into the deal and switched his vote at the last minute when CA One refused to go along.

"I never should have trusted him," laments Dave Walden, who had counted on Vasquez for the clinching eighth vote. "I couldn't believe he would lie so baldly…That's my mistake, and it was a fatal mistake for this deal."

Vasquez chairs the council's aviation committee, which conducted hearings on the selection process for the airport bidders. The ten-year pact for food and drink outlets is worth an estimated $250 million in sales to the winners. There is another contract for news, gifts and specialty retail outlets, which is still awaiting council action.

Councilman Vasquez says his vote was decided when a tax scofflaw stayed in the deal.
Deron Neblett
Councilman Vasquez says his vote was decided when a tax scofflaw stayed in the deal.

Vasquez confirms that Walden and several of the councilman's associates met to discuss possible roles on the CA One team, but insists that had nothing to do with how he voted. He says he voted against CA One because it ignored his concerns that one of the team members, Charles Bush, owed back taxes to the city.

"I cannot in good conscience vote to give a lucrative contract to a vendor who owes the city $260,000 and has almost a million-dollar tax bill and a history of tax problems," says Vasquez.

According to the councilman, his vote was decided when an amendment to ban Bush from the deal was tabled. He credits council for having the strength to derail a bad deal that the administration was trying to "ram down our throats."

"I said all along if the process was fair, if the scoring was fair, then the final recommendation would hold up to public scrutiny, and it did not."

Four Families lobbyist Bill Miller dismisses the Walden complaint as sour grapes by a team that tried to steal the deal from the deserving bidder.

"We promised nothing to no one," scoffs Miller. "It was by all rights our deal."

After the vote, CA One's Kirbyjon Caldwell blasted council's decision, saying it took his group's bid package and simply awarded it to Four Families. Mayor Brown questioned whether the action violated state bid laws. Caldwell and Walden both indicated the matter will likely wind up in court.

Although the vote was 9-6, one CA One supporter, District F's Mark Ellis, changed sides after a preliminary ballot on a contract amendment revealed that Four Families had a majority. Right up until the actual vote, Walden says, Vasquez had pledged his support for CA One. Had the mayor's team known in advance that he was switching sides, says the lobbyist, they would have tried to delay the vote.

The mayor endured the indignity of seeing his own mayor pro tem, Gordon Quan, whose job is to rally the council troops on behalf of the administration line, vote with the opposition instead. Walden, who was the chief of staff for former mayor Bob Lanier, had to swallow his earlier comments that the airport concession was a done deal for CA One.

According to Walden, his problems with Vasquez began after the councilman asked him to meet with Louis Carranza, a representative of Primis Corporation. Primis was interested in the construction portion of the deal at Hobby. Walden says the breakfast at the downtown Hyatt was set up by Vasquez's former council aide and political consultant Frank McCune, who was present along with a representative of CA One.

"Carranza's a great guy and had experience at airports," notes Walden. "I told Gabe, 'We've got to wait until we get the deal done, and he's going to get every opportunity, and I really think the guy's very qualified.' Well, that wasn't good enough."

In Vasquez's account, it was Walden who initiated the meeting with Primis.

"David asked me if I knew any construction people that did good work or had done work at the airport," claims the councilman. "The only one I knew was Primis and Louis Carranza. Dave went out and visited with him."

Vasquez says that Walden initially told him there was no room in the deal for more people, and that he understood the meeting was "just to make contact, say hello, to go from there."

Walden says Vasquez also arranged a meeting with a friend of the councilman, a schoolteacher visiting from Austin, who wanted to be included in the airport pact. The lobbyist says the councilman suggested that they trim part of the contract percentage from Art Lopez, a concessionaire for CA One, "and work something out for my friend in Austin." Like the Primis breakfast, Vasquez characterizes the meeting as a courtesy call, with no expectation that his friend would get into the airport deal.

"I asked Dave what was going on with the package," recalls Vasquez. "He said it was already closed, but that he would be willing to meet with anybody. I said, 'Well, for future potential, can you meet with this guy?' So he sat down and visited with him." Vasquez declined to identify the individual.

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