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Tampa International Airport executive resigns amid conflict of interest inquiry

Lou Russo, a top executive at Tampa International Airport, resigned Tuesday amid an investigation into potential conflicts of interest in the airport's procurement procedures.

TIA's senior director for planning and development, Russo had been under scrutiny since officials disclosed at an airport board meeting last month that his wife worked for a company competing for an airport contract.

Russo decided to pursue other job opportunities and believed it was time to leave before a new executive director, Joseph Lopano, arrives in January, said his attorney, Benjamin H. Hill III of Tampa. He said the investigation will show Russo didn't do anything wrong.

"It's a shame all this happened at this time," Hill said. "The timing made it look like he's running away from something. But that's not it at all."

Russo, 52, had worked nearly 13 years at the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority and was earning $156,000 a year.

A staff committee ranked Gresham, Smith and Partners of Nashville as the best among 15 firms vying to design a $7.9 million renovation of the main terminal. On Nov. 4, the board was ready to award the contract when interim director John Wheat disclosed that Jacqueline Russo was employed in the design firm's Tampa office.

Board members were upset to learn about Russo's connection to Gresham Smith so late. They threw out the rankings, froze any more contract awards and abruptly adjourned their meeting.

Russo wasn't on the committee and no one said he influenced anyone who voted. But five of six panel members were his subordinates.

Russo did vote on earlier panels that evaluated proposals by Gresham Smith, Wheat said. He told Russo to stop after Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, a board member, privately raised objections earlier this year.

Outside counsel David Smith launched an investigation three weeks ago to find out if staff members followed the state's ethics law and aviation authority policies in evaluating contract proposals. He is expected to give board members his findings at their next meeting on Dec. 9.

Jacqueline Russo is a senior associate and principal in Gresham Smith's corporate and urban design division. She has no role in airport projects at Tampa International or elsewhere, the company says.

Lou Russo was a prized executive, earning the agency's top performance rating in 2009 from John Wheat, then deputy to former executive director Louis Miller.

Wheat cited a long list of accomplishments, including Russo's work with state transportation officials on the airport interchange and resolving the collapse of a concrete canopy at a parking garage. A contractor fixed the damage at no cost to the airport.

Miller, who now leads Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, concurred in the evaluation. "You do a great job for the Aviation Authority and I really appreciate your efforts!'' he wrote.

Russo, a Tampa native who graduated from Robinson High School and the University of Florida, was a construction manager for Barnett Bank when the aviation authority hired him as the airport's construction manager in 1998.

In 2003, he was named senior director of planning and development. Since then, he had overseen all major construction at Tampa International and three general aviation airports the authority owns in Hillsborough County.

Russo applied for the executive director job after Miller resigned in March following conflicts with some board members. An executive search firm didn't include him among five finalists for the position.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (727)893-8128.

Tampa International Airport executive resigns amid conflict of interest inquiry 11/30/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 1, 2010 12:13am]
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