Some fear exit opens door for patronage:

July 23, 2007

One improvement BAA made in Indianapolis never got much attention: It tried to weed out patronage jobs. Former airport board member Gordon St. Angelo thought it was one of the most significant benefits of taking airport management out of municipal hands.

"I think a major improvement was the streamlining of what had been a semi-patronage type of program," St. Angelo said, referring to BAA's eliminating some nonproductive employees and practices.

Municipal agencies such as airports' becoming dumping grounds for politicians' pals isn't unique to Indianapolis. But now that a private airport operator is no longer in place here, some see a risk that an airport board appointed by the mayor and City-County Council could be more inclined to shenanigans.

And shenanigans would be a kind way of characterizing allegations made in 2004 by David Roberts, who had been BAA's top man in Indianapolis.

Roberts, a veteran BAA executive who once managed Terminal 2 at London's Heathrow Airport and was managing director of Glasgow Airport Ltd., filed paperwork with the state that he intended to sue the city and airport over what he said was "political opportunism" by the influential Democrat that Mayor Bart Peterson named airport board president in 2000.

Roberts alleged that board President Lacy Johnson attempted to influence the airport staff to hire political favorites.

"Johnson attempted to influence employment of minorities, unionization of employees, allocation of space to airlines and concessionaires ... engagement of favored contractors [and] suggested removal of BAA employees who were considered politically too Republican," stated Roberts' five-page intent-to-sue notice.

Roberts said one of the preferred candidates was qualified as an embalmer and was a protégé of Johnson's godmother, Indiana congresswoman Julia Carson.

One member of the board said someone else suggested the airport consider hiring the embalmer but that Roberts incorrectly assumed it was Johnson.

Roberts' claims never got an airing. He soon died from the complications of long illness.

John Kish, a Democrat who was manager of the White River State Park project and oversaw the construction of new state office buildings downtown, has donated at least $4,000 to Indiana Democratic candidates over the last decade. He scoffed at the patronage talk, saying his team is professional. "These sorts of things aren't a problem."

Johnson agreed, saying, "I don't see it as an issue."

Mike Wells, a Republican board member, isn't wringing his hands over the possibility a return to municipal management could bring patronage.

"I think you always run the risk" in a municipal setting, but "this mayor is a responsible person," he said.
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