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TIA board members fume as contractor conflict halts approvals

Members of the board that oversees Tampa International Airport slammed the brakes on approving new contracts Thursday after hearing about a conflict of interest in the staff's review of company proposals.

Interim director John Wheat disclosed that the wife of Louis Russo, the airport's senior director of planning and development, worked for Gresham, Smith and Partners, a Nashville-based firm that a staff committee ranked first to design a $7.9 million renovation of the airport's main terminal.

Russo didn't sit in on the review, but five of the six members who ranked the firms work for him. Board members fumed that they hadn't heard about the conflict until they were ready to award the contract.

"This is an abomination and you've got to stop it," said board member Steven Burton, all but yelling at top staffers. "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves. I'm insulted and offended."

Jacqueline Russo joined Gresham, Smith in 2001 and works as a interior designer in the company's Tampa office on Harbour Island. Louis Russo is among the airport's most senior executives, overseeing construction planning and major building projects at TIA. He earns $155,900 annually.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio heard soon after former director Louis Miller tendered his resignation in February that Louis Russo served on the committee while it ranked Gresham, Smith's proposals for airport work. She raised her concerns with Wheat, who told her he'd fix the conflict.

He set an unwritten policy that evaluation team members can't rank proposals when a family member works for one of the firms, Wheat said Thursday.

But the policy didn't prohibit their subordinates from taking part. "We made changes, but obviously not to the level the mayor had expected," Wheat said. Iorio twice huddled with Wheat during the meeting and urged him to disclose the conflict.

Burton and fellow members Joseph Diaco and Al Austin said they weren't aware of the conflict until Wheat disclosed it after Gresham, Smith and two competitors finished making presentations.

Board members threw out company rankings for the terminal design project and put off scheduled votes on three other contracts. They also decided to postpone votes on contracts at their next meeting in December. They will resume after incoming airport director Joseph Lopano takes over Jan. 1.

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

TIA board members fume as contractor conflict halts approvals 11/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 10:48pm]
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