City hearing officer turns down appeal for would-be airport vendor
3:28 pm, April 25th, 2012
A hearing officer for the city of Atlanta has turned down an appeal from SSP America Inc., whose bids to run several concessions at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport were denied last year by the city procurement officer in favor of other vendors.
In an order issued Tuesday, independent Procurement Appeals Hearing Officer George F. Maynard upheld that denial. He ruled that SSP had failed to prove its assertion that the bid process was flawed due to arbitrary scoring by the officials evaluating the bids, conflicts of interest and interference by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Maynard held three days of hearings in March and this month, during which attorneys for SSP solicited testimony from 11 witnesses and presented numerous documents related to the bid process.
“[SSP] acknowledges its case relies almost entirely on circumstantial evidence gleaned from its exhaustive review of hundreds of thousands of pages of documents,” wrote Maynard in his 23 page ruling.
“Despite [SSP]’s contention that it is the leading Airport concessions company in the nation, it seems curiously focused on trying to reduce the municipal procurement process to a purely objective and mathematical process.”
SSP’s strategy consists of “attacking the submissions of higher scoring proponents on grounds other than the merits of the submissions” and attempting to either disqualify the winning bidders, or force the city to re-bid the contracts altogether, he wrote.
The bidding process was thrown into disarray last year, when an initial round of more than 150 food and beverage contracts worth billions of dollars were thrown out and ordered re-bid because, according to city officials, not enough vendors submitted qualifying packages.
SSP, which had submitted qualifying proposals for each of five “Large Food Packages” consisting of multiple outlets at the airport, filed a written protest when it was shut out of all the contracts in the second round, as did three “small Food Package” vendors.
City Procurement Officer Adam Smith turned down those protests, and the disappointed vendors’ next avenue was the appeal before Maynard. Prior to the hearings, SSP’s attorneys made clear that they were building an evidentiary record for an expected court challenge to Smith’s – and now, Maynard’s – rulings.
“We’re very pleased with the hearing officer’s orders; it was very thorough and well-reasoned,” said Greenberg Traurig partner Mark Trigg, who has been leading the defense of the contracts on behalf of the city.
Trigg said Maynard will convene hearings on the three remaining vendors’ protests next week.
Ashe Rafuse & Hill partner Ken Hodges said via email that he would be filing a new petition challenging the order in Fulton County Superior Court. In an attached statement, he continued to assail the procurement process and the mayor’s alleged involvement in it, and alluded to a judge’s order in a related Open Records Act case he brought on SSP’s behalf earlier this year.
“SSP is required to initiate its Protest through a process controlled entirely by the very people whose conduct is at issue,” said the statement. “Even the Superior Court remarked that Adam Smith (the Chief Procurement Officer) “with the approval of the Mayor, appointed the procurement appeals officer,” Mr. Maynard, who was hand-selected and appointed by the Mayor to his position.”