ATLANTA - Now a FOX 5 I-Team exclusive. Our I-Team has learned one of the biggest potential winners in the current food and retail bids at the Atlanta Airport is business partners with the wife of the Deputy General Manager of the Atlanta airport.
After learning of our story, Mayor Kasim Reed quickly responded. His spokesperson says the city has placed the top airport official on administrative leave and is investigating the vendor's current and potential contracts.
The players in this are well known in the airport industry and politically connected in Atlanta. The deputy general manager is Cortez Carter. A highly respected, and well liked, airport official known all over the country. The airport food vendor is Wassim Hojeij was a fundraiser for Mayor Kasim Reed and now mayoral hopeful Keisha Lance Bottoms.
In 2016 and 2017, the airport put four different food or retail packages put up for bid. Those bids are broken up into packages that some two dozen different vendors tried to win.
The FOX 5 I-Team has learned that losing bidders have been notified by letters like this one that potential winners have been selected by the procurement department. We now know that Wassim Hojeij’s company, Hojeij Branded Foods, was one of the winners in every single bid.
According to industry experts, Hojeij Branded Foods (HBJ) has been selected to operate 10 different spaces worth more than $40 million dollars a year in revenue in Atlanta.
We've also learned this. While the Atlanta airport bids were still underway, Reagan National Airport in Washington DC announced a new Chick Fil A opening. Hojiej Branded Foods or HBJ was selected to run the restaurant.
HBF is a massive, nationwide airport concession group, in 12 different airports across the country, according to its website. HBF did more than $90 million in revenue last year here in Atlanta.
Hojeij had minority partners in DC. One caught the attention of the Fox 5 I-Team. Charisse Works Carter is listed as the founder and president of AirWorks Group.
Our investigation has learned that Charisse Works Carter is the wife of Atlanta airport deputy General Manager, Cortez Carter.
Cortez Carter's responsibilities at the airport include overseeing "concessions development."
We took our findings to Sara Henderson, director fo good government group, Common Cause. She said it was a clear conflict of interest and described it this way.
“Unethical and un-transparent, backdoor dealing government and it's awful.”
AirWorks Group is an Illinois company, but we found the address listed for the company is a house here in SW Atlanta. The home of Cortez and Charisse Carter. No one would come to the door to talk with us when we visited.
An HBF spokesperson told us AirWorks Group partnered with HBF in a "protege program" in 2015 and then became a 10% minority partner with HBF at the Chick-Fil-A location in July 2015. This was before her husband was hired by Atlanta two months later. They say Ms. Carter has no airport business in Atlanta.
Sara Henderson says it doesn’t matter.
“Either he should have not accepted the position or she should let go of that business venture because it still looks like an ethical situation here,” says Henderson.
The HBF spokesperson stated Carter made his wife's business arrangement "abundantly clear" to everyone at the airport. But, when we looked for a conflict of interest disclosure on the city's web page, there was none filed by Cortez Carter.
We took our findings to Mayoral candidates.
Mary Norwood told us because of the business arrangement, the four ongoing airport food and retail bids need to be thrown out.
“Clearly, it ought to be rebid. I would want a full investigation of what is going on,” said Norwood.
Keisha Lance Bottoms sent us an email saying if accurate, our report raises “significant concern” and “appropriate disciplinary action needs to be immediately taken”
Bottoms promises, if elected, to audit and overhaul the city’s bid process.
Mayor Reed's spokesperson wrote to say the city takes this matter very seriously. She stated the city learned of this business relationship and placed Cortez Carter on administrative leave while it determines if he violated any city code policies.
The city is also investigating all of Hojeij Branded Foods current and pending contracts. That could total more than $130 million dollars per year at the Atlanta airport.
Mayor Reed spokesperson full statement:
“The City of Atlanta has learned that the spouse of a senior leader at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport has an active business relationship with an airport subcontractor at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.
"The airport employee has been placed on administrative leave while the City determines whether the employee violated City Code or any policies. The City is also in the process of reviewing all current and pending contracts with the vendor.
"We take this matter very seriously. We want to ensure the public has trust in their government, and even the appearance of impropriety erodes the public’s trust. If any violations of protocols, ordinances or policies are found to have taken place, we will address the situation immediately and without hesitation.”
Hojeij Brand Foods spokesperson’s full statement:
- AirWorks Concessions was incorporated in Illinois in October 2012. M. Charisse Works is the sole owner.
- AirWorks applied for ACDBE certification in multiple states from October 2012 to December 2014, and is currently certified in 16 states.
- In February 2015, AirWorks became a selected participant in the HBF national mentorship protégé program and in July 2015 offered the opportunity to bid a minor stake (10 percent) in the Chick-Fil-A location at Reagan International Airport. There is another ACDBE involved there as well (Air Pancho’s) with a 30 percent stake. Air Pancho’s was specifically chosen due to their expertise in mentoring.
- Mr. Cortez Carter arrived in Atlanta as the Assistant General Manager at HJAIA in Sept. 2015. He was recently promoted to Deputy General Manager (Sept. 2017).
Keisha Lance bottom's full statement:
"The Atlanta City Council has not received any formal notice of awards for bids at the airport. However, if the information as reported regarding Cortez Carter is accurate, it is of significant concern and appropriate disciplinary action needs to be taken immediately, up to termination. It is unacceptable for any employee to fail to disclose conflicts of interest, and it is unacceptable for companies competing for city business to fail to disclose business, financial or personal relationships with city employees.
The City’s procurement process needs to be above reproach and that is why as Mayor, I will immediately begin an audit and overhaul of our procurement process to ensure that the City operates with the highest level of integrity and ethics.
Our campaign will also continue to operate with the highest level of integrity and ethics. We have identified $17,800 in contributions from Mr. Wassim Hojeij and Hojeij Branded Foods employees. We will donate these funds to local charities today. Our campaign has hundreds of donors, and when we have learned of any concern with a donor or donation, we have immediately returned or donated those funds. We will not compromise our values for contributions.
It is noteworthy that Mary Norwood has accepted at least $7,000 in contributions from Hojeij and Hojeij employees so far this year. Norwood was also recently endorsed by Council President Ceasar Mitchell, who also accepted thousands of dollars in contributions from Hojeij employees and relatives."