The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority's top attorney told board members Tuesday she would authorize an independent investigation into potential conflicts of interest in procurement procedures at Tampa International Airport.
General counsel Gigi Rechel has asked David Smith, the agency's outside counsel, to review documents and interview employees about how staff members evaluated construction proposals and determine if state law or agency policies were violated.
"It's in the Aviation Authority's best interest to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible," Rechel said Tuesday evening.
The action followed allegations last week that Louis Russo, the agency's senior director of planning and development, was in a position to influence board decisions to award contracts to design firm Gresham, Smith and Partners, headquartered in Nashville. His wife, Jacqueline Russo, works at the company's Tampa office.
Airport interim executive director John Wheat revealed the connection at a board meeting Thursday as members prepared to award a contract to design a $7.9 million renovation of TIA's main terminal.
A staff review committee had ranked Gresham Smith's proposal as the best among those submitted by several firms.
Russo didn't sit on that panel. But five of its six members work for him. Board members fumed that Wheat hadn't told them earlier that Russo's wife was employed by the company.
They threw out the rankings and put a hold on decisions to award new contracts until new executive director Joseph Lopano starts work Jan. 1.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said that Rechel told her months earlier about reports that Russo took part in ranking proposals by Gresham Smith.
She told Wheat, who then made an unwritten policy against agency employees sitting on a committee if a relative worked for one of the bidders.
Rechel says she's still unclear what Jacqueline Russo's job is with Gresham Smith. Her husband told authority officials she was "a lower-level designer," said Rechel.
But a May 3 press release by the company said Jacqueline Russo was a new owner with a stake in the firm. She also identified herself as a principal with the company on the online networking site LinkedIn. No one at Gresham Smith's headquarters returned calls Monday about her position.
Orlando Lopez-Isa, a vice president in the Tampa office, told the Tampa Bay Business Journal that Jacqueline Russo's partnership was never finalized. She serves as a Tampa-based vice president, he told the publication.
Iorio and board member Steven Burton supported the investigation.
"It would be good to understand where we've been, and to make sure that any and all policies, regulations and laws are being followed," Burton said.
Iorio was incredulous that employees at the agency could be in a position to influence a decision that financially benefits a relative's employer.
"To me it's just common sense," she said. "You don't allow it any more and put in procedures so it doesn't happen again."
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org of (727) 893-8128.