By: Sen. Burt Jones (R – Jackson)
Since the late 1980s, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has been at the center of allegations of corruption, bribery and improper handling of the procurement process. In order to address these well-publicized issues, I sponsored Senate Bill 131, the “Georgia Major Airport Authority Act,” which would create a state authority to oversee the operation of the airport. SB 131 is the result of recommendations passed unanimously by the 13-member, bipartisan airport study committee which met during the 2018 interim. Their recommendation to transfer the responsibility of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to an authority that mirrors the structure of the Georgia World Congress Center Authority and the Georgia Ports Authority is the primary language in SB 131.
During the 2019 session, SB 131 was assigned to the Senate Transportation Committee where language was added stating that the legislation would create a state authority to oversee the operation of the airport, but could dissolve if the General Assembly and the City of Atlanta could come to a joint governance plan by July 1, 2020. This change gave the city and its officials the opportunity to come to the table and keep the lines of communication open. Prior to introducing SB 131, committee members and I made efforts to hold meetings with Mayor Bottoms and city council members on several occasions. While some meetings did occur, the city’s stance remained that there were no problems and that they were making all necessary changes. During these public meetings, officials continued to deny any wrongdoing. During some of the study committee meetings and the Senate Transportation Committee meetings, airport and city officials reiterated that changes were being made to ensure the management of the airport, and particularly the procurement process, are in the stages of being completely overhauled. These stated changes included making the entire procurement process more transparent, particularly public access to bids and records.
While transparency and change were promised, there appear to be no changes and transparency regarding airport operations is not being promoted, but rather, stifled. On Monday, July 29, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launched a new investigation into the airport and city with allegations that revenues from the airport were once again improperly allocated. This is in addition to the ongoing issue that occurred back in May when city officials denied the FAA subpoena for airport documents regarding finances and revenue misappropriations. This week’s investigation and the May subpoena are in addition to the audit the FAA conducted last year after an investigation found that the airport was using revenue to pay lawyers. These are just three instances where city officials and the airport have been investigated for fraud and improper handling of funds.
Sadly, issues such as these have been following the airport since the 1980s and the current management structure’s issues are deep-rooted, institutional problems that seem to be very far from being addressed and solved. Even with evidence of corruption, criminal charges and findings that over one hundred million dollars have been misappropriated, city officials and some members of the Democratic Party do not want to make changes. It is disappointing that they can watch and take no action while Georgia’s crown-jewel is plagued with criminal activity and political favors. On the other hand, when members of the Republican Party are accused of wrong-doing, there is an immediate call to action. Members of the opposing party want the accused removed while painting the party the accused represents with the same brush. I do not agree with this double standard and believe that when it comes to corruption – party should not matter.
Public corruption is public corruption. It is our obligation to protect the best interest of our citizens, to be good stewards of their money and to respect their trust in us. We cannot stand aside and let a party determine when we take action. When there is clear evidence, indictments and continuous corruption scandals involving city officials and the airport they manage, something must be done.
While SB 131 overwhelmingly passed the Senate, the legislation is currently in a holding pattern while we wait for our colleagues in the House to decide what version of SB 131 can be passed and sent to the Governor for his signature. Progress was made last session, but the work to end corruption and bribery has not stopped. Along with following the actions of the FAA, I will continue to meet with officials around the state and within the city so that we can find a solution to avoid further embarrassment at one of our state’s greatest assets. As I have said before, the airport is an asset that benefits all Georgians and should be treated as a business enterprise, not a political shake-down center.
Sen. Burt Jones is the Chairman of the Insurance and Labor Committee. He represents the 25th Senate District which includes Baldwin, Butts, Greene, Jasper, Morgan and Putnam counties and portions of Bibb, Jones and Walton counties. He may be reached at 404.656.0082 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.