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Report largely clears ex-TIA executive of pushing for a contract for wife's firm

TAMPA — Former Tampa International Airport executive Lou Russo didn't violate the state's ethics law when he put himself in a position to influence a contract to the company where his wife worked, an attorney who investigated the case said Thursday.

David Smith told the airport's governing board he found no evidence Russo tried to sway members of a committee that gave design firm Gresham, Smith and Partners the top ranking for a pending contract. Four of the five committee members worked for him or his subordinates.

The board last month refused to award the contract for a $7.9 million renovation of the main airport when they learned Russo's wife, Jacqueline, worked for Gresham Smith in Tampa. David Smith was hired to find out if the ranking was rigged or any employee violated the law.

Committee members told Smith that Russo didn't try to influence their decisions. The ethics law could apply only if Jacqueline Russo was an officer, partner, director or proprietor of the firm, Smith said. A Gresham Smith news release in May identified her as a new owner in the firm.

But after a St. Petersburg Times story raised questions about her role, the company said Russo never completed the paperwork or accepted the position. Gresham Smith CEO James W. Bearden wrote the airport that Russo is a senior associate and principal in Tampa and has no involvement in the firm's airport projects at TIA or elsewhere.

But Lou Russo, 52, who resigned Nov. 30 as the airport's $156,000-a-year senior director of planning and development, contributed to a situation that made the airport administration look bad, Smith said.

He rejected advice to distance himself from evaluations that included proposals by Gresham Smith. "Clearly, he did not understand or give much credence to the 'appearance of impropriety' issue and the need to distance himself from such procurements,'' Smith's report said.

Former executive director Louis Miller and interim executive director John Wheat knew Russo was involved in reviewing contract proposals by his wife's firm but didn't consider it ''a real problem,'' according to the report.

The board's followup discussion turned into a critique of Miller's leadership at Tampa International.

Miller resigned in March after disclosures that the airport held contract evaluation meetings without public notice and that he approved height variances rather than creating a panel as required by state law. He now runs Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world's busiest airport.

Mayor Pam Iorio noted the airport's longtime popularity, evidenced by a Zagat survey released this week in which travelers rated Tampa International as the nation's second-best airport.

But Iorio, who previously defended Miller against critics, blamed airport management during her eight years on the board for a culture of hushing up bad news and refusing to seek advice outside the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

"It's a management style where tight control trumped openness,'' she said. Iorio later said she meant Miller and Wheat. That will change when Joseph Lopano arrives Jan. 1 from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to take over as executive director, Iorio said.

Board member Steven Burton praised staff for the airport's continued success but called Miller an autocrat.

Report largely clears ex-TIA executive of pushing for a contract for wife's firm 12/09/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 9, 2010 9:56pm]
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