BWI Airport officials have agreed after years of wrangling to allow a politically connected Prince George's County businessman to participate in a program for minorities at the airport, according to audit findings obtained by The Baltimore Sun on Thursday.
Sandy Roberts, who runs Olympic News, one of the biggest retail operations at BWI, had not previously been counted among the minority-owned businesses at the airport because officials said he was not running the company himself. Airport officials said souvenir giant Hudson News, which recruited Roberts as a minority partner, was behind the operation.
The change might help the state-owned airport meet minority business goals set in 2004 when a new concessions firm was hired to overhaul lackluster sales.
The airport brought in a host of new restaurants and shops but has never met all of the minority goals - considered a priority by state officials, who wanted to provide opportunities to minority business owners as well as diversify offerings to customers. The program also has faced turnover and complaints from some participants, who said they were being treated unfairly. There are about a dozen companies in the program now.
The program was launched by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Roberts, who is black, had ties to Michael S. Steele, who was Ehrlich's lieutenant governor and is now Republican National Committee chairman. After a change in administrations and the publication of articles in The Sun outlining problems with the program, officials ordered a series of audits in 2007 and replaced key supervisors.
Reports released last year raised questions about how several companies entered the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program and how they operated.
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that state and federal officials with jurisdiction over airports raised questions about the Olympic-Hudson partnership from its inception.
Olympic was supposed to independently run several of the 18 airport shops promised to Hudson, but for almost two more years after the state ordered the audits, airport officials said, there was little more than a name change on the stores. Roberts did not return a call for comment.
The audit summary released on Thursday showed that for years, Hudson was managing payroll, providing financial services, marketing, stocking shelves, paying vendors and "providing almost all, if not all of the business services for Olympic to operate, and it was determined that if [Hudson] withdrew its services, the [minority] firm would be unable to operate."
But Jonathan Dean, an airport spokesman, said those problems had recently been rectified, and the airport is now satisfied.
"It was a long process," he said. "The airport held their feet to the fire. ...The concession contract will continue to be monitored."
Dean said the length of time it took to get Olympic into compliance and the turnover of other firms was not troublesome. He noted that many of the minority-owned shops and restaurants at the airport have received aid, such as rent breaks provided by the overall concession manager, BAA Maryland. A BAA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
State data shows that revenue BAA pays to the airport has been on the rise in recent years, as have sales per plane passenger, a key airport retailing measure. But BAA has not achieved projections outlined in 2004, when it won the contract. And it will still need to meet the minority goals.
On that front, BAA required Hudson to have a minority partner because it was awarding the company so many storefronts. Hudson said it recruited Roberts from a list of business people approved as disadvantaged businesses. But Roberts was running a janitorial supply company and was not approved for work at BWI. His application was fast-tracked by the state, as were others who wanted to work at BWI.
Around the same time Roberts hosted a party for Steele, then Maryland's lieutenant governor. Steele has said he was not involved in any airport deals, though he had worked to improve the prospects for minority businesses in the state.
Roberts also controls a company called Allied Berton LLC that received large payments in 2006 from Steele for campaign work, though the company's online profile says it trades metals and other commodities.