Is this any way to run an airport?

Black bookseller Robert Crews once ran a thriving store at D/FW. Now he's in court fighting to save his business, thanks to airport policies that boost local minorities and squeeze airport concessionaires

But issues raised at that board meeting in the fall of 1993 would be an ominous portent of things to come. What began as a promising business endeavor and a significant step forward for minority economic rights, soon dissolved into an ugly battle. Now D/FW's first black concessionaire is in court, claiming that the board's goal of attracting local minorities is little more than cronyism and that the airport's mishandling of his contract has nearly ruined his once-thriving business.

Last spring, Robert Crews sued the D/FW Airport board and several staff members for $17 million, contending that officials improperly tried to force him to take on Hispanic partners with ties to board members. He refused to become partners with them because these businessmen already had concessions at the airport and, in fact, were direct competitors of his bookstores. After attending a board meeting where Fort Worth board members complained that blacks were not getting enough minority contracts, Crews eventually entered a joint venture with two black mena former teacher and a lawyer. Still, the airport board on the staff's recommendation voted to evict him for not having minority partners.

He also claims he was made to pay an additional $240,000 not mentioned in his lease before the airlines would release the space he needed for his stores. The lease he signed, however, states that the space had already been released. In one instance, Crews paid American Airlines two years ago for space to expand one of his stores, but the company has yet to turn the space over to him.

Airport officials and their lawyers refused to comment for this story, citing the pending litigation. But in a recent court hearing, attorney Robert Mow of the Hughes & Luce law firm, which represents airport staff named in suit, characterized the suit as a "simple fight with a tenant who was unhappy with the terms of his lease. There is no cause and no harm," Mow said.

But Crews insists he has been harmed plenty. The hidden costs and the delays in opening his stores put him way over budget, hurt his cash flow, and made it difficult to work out the terms of a minority partnership agreement. Then he had to hire an attorney to fight against the eviction--a fight he eventually won.

Crews says he tried to bring his grievances to the airport executive director Jeff Fegan and board president Betty Culbreath. But when they refused to listen, he says he had no choice but to sue. It is a decision, he admits, that has hurt his reputation industry wide. Since his troubles with D/FW airport began, he says more than a dozen leases he has had with other airports have not been renewed.

"It's a very tight brethren, and they don't like people who rock the boat," Crews says. "This has been the most devastating thing to happen in my career."

Robert Crews' battle with D/FW Airport grows uglier by the day. At almost every monthly board meeting since the suit was filed, Crews' attorney, Kenneth Walker, has spoken out about the suspect way he believes the airport is run. He has been adding individual board members to the suit each month. In retaliation, the board recently filed a protective motion, preventing Walker from speaking about the lawsuit at the board meetings.

"It begs the question of what the airport has to hide," Walker said at the April board meeting. "Are you trying to hide special deals being done by certain people and airport board members? Are you trying to hide the airport being a rubber stamp for the airlines? Are you trying to hide your breaches of fiduciary duty?"

After Walker spoke, Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who sits on the airport board, threatened to have the State Bar look into removing Walker's law license. "I will pursue your legal conduct in this case in every way possible," Kirk told Walker, a Harvard-educated lawyer and former president of the local association of black lawyers. "I want to make sure you're aware of that."

Beyond the board meeting pyrotechnics, the lawsuit has shed light on some questionable business practices at the airport. In a recent deposition, for example, airport board member Bob Fernandez, a Fort Worth accountant, admitted to Walker that he does accounting work for a minority concessionaire at the airport and has done work for other minority concessionaires in the past. According to the rules governing airport board members, "no member of the board or officer or employee shall have a financial interest, direct or indirect, in any contract with the board ..."

Then there is the fact that the mayor votes regularly on issues involving millions of dollars in revenues to American Airlines. American is a client of the law firm Gardere & Wynne, where Kirk is employed at a yearly salary of $200,000.

As far as Kenneth Walker is concerned, the airport board and its staff work not for the best interest of the public, which owns the airport, but for the best interest of the airlines, particularly American Airlines, which accounts for 70 percent of the flights at D/FW. "I believe the public is getting screwed," Walker says. "Who is the real beneficiary out at the airport? The public gets the crumbs and private interest gets the whole pie."

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