Food Fight Indigestion

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

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.

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.

Walden says the man had no experience in the food business, had just gotten a divorce and had no money to invest.

"I can't help a guy like that," says the lobbyist. "Gabe's all pissed off, so I said, 'Here's what I'll do: Let me work on this after the deal is over. I might be able to help him with some interim financing, but he can't come in as a [minority vendor]. He's gotta do something to earn the money.' "

Walden cites a third instance of Vasquez promoting friends for the deal, saying it occurred during a council meeting last month focusing on the back taxes issue. He says Vasquez suggested to him that if Bush was removed from the deal, McCune could step in.

"If he gets out, can you put Frank in the deal?" Walden quotes Vasquez as asking. When the lobbyist noted that once Bush paid the back taxes he would want back in the deal, he says Vasquez responded, "Well, I can handle that."

Shortly after that exchange, Walden says, Vasquez suggested at the council meeting that persons owing back taxes be permanently removed from city contracts.

Asked whether he had suggested McCune for the deal, Vasquez initially denied it. He then seemed to backpedal.

"What I remember of the conversation [with Walden] was that there was no opportunity, that Charles Bush was under contract. What I remember of the conversation was that Aviation would have to sign off on it and there was no room for anybody to be included."

Vasquez blames the CA One team for repeatedly ignoring his complaints about the presence of tax scofflaws among the group's concessionaires.

"I don't know what I can tell these people," comments Vasquez. "Look at my public comments. I said Bush needed to be permanently removed. What is it about that they do not understand?

"I think they read the signals incorrectly. In some ways they took my vote and my support for granted, but I was very clear."

Walden predicts Vasquez's motivations and the legality of the Four Families contract are likely to be under the microscope in future litigation.

"My experience with guys under oath in a deposition is they usually tell the fucking truth," says the lobbyist. "My team is not walking away."

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