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Kansas City Council member accused of interfering in KCI airport contract negotiations

Kansas City Councilwoman Teresa Loar in city council chambers September 16, after members of the transportation committee boycott the meeting.
Kansas City Councilwoman Teresa Loar in city council chambers September 16, after members of the transportation committee boycott the meeting.

On August 18, Kansas City Manager Brian Platt emailed the City Attorney to report receiving a “disturbing” phone call from a member of the Kansas City Council.

Platt wrote that the call came from Teresa Loar, who represents the city's second district. She contacted him that day about the contracting process for private companies seeking to run concessions at the new Kansas City International Airport terminal.

“She claims to know exactly who we are negotiating with and also asserted that moving forward with the intended selection would not be good for the city and cause a lot of issues for all of us,” Platt wrote in his email to city attorney Matt Gigliotti. “I understood this to be a request for me to intervene in the process and change it’s [sic] course.”

The “intended selection” is Vantage Airport Group, and Loar’s phone call came as City Hall staff were negotiating a contract with Vantage that would later go to the Kansas City Council for a vote.

Government contracts are a sensitive issue for both the public and private sectors. Businesses are drawn to potentially lucrative contracts to carry out government services. The goal for governments is to secure contracts with businesses that can provide the best service at the most effective cost to taxpayers.

The process is often highly confidential and political meddling can be a concern.

Vantage’s selection has been a point of some contention at City Hall over the past month. Loar has said Vantage put forth a risky proposal for the city and for companies that would do concession business — restaurants, gift shops, newsstands — at KCI.

Loar also has complained about a lack of transparency during the contract selection. She stormed out of a council committee meeting last week in frustration, causing her city council colleagues to ask questions.

“You have to question when someone is that emotional, for a lack of a better word, or vocal against something to the point where they would walk out of a committee meeting,” said Andrea Bough, an at-large Kansas City council member for the sixth district. “I ask, ‘why?’”

In his email to the city attorney, obtained by the Midwest Newsroom, Platt reported telling Loar that the city was in the middle of a confidential process and that “neither of us should be engaging in any way at this point.”

Platt wrote that he told Loar, "I am not going to make any attempts to redirect the process at all.”

Platt also reported that, in the phone call, Loar noted he was Kansas City Aviation Director Pat Klein’s boss, “insinuating again I should take some action.”

“She did not indicate anything about who she has spoken to or what information has been made available,” Platt wrote. “But clearly she is engaging in the process and communicating with respondents in an inappropriate manner.”

Platt did not provide responses to questions posed to him about the email.

‘I just warned him’

Loar acknowledges placing the call to Platt but recalls it differently.

She said she asked if Platt understood how the model Vantage put forth in its proposal, is different from the structure proposed by the four other bidders.

This article does not attempt to evaluate the merits of the five proposals, but Loar’s objection to Vantage is that it proposes to be the developer of KCI's concession space, which she thinks puts small business and the airport at a disadvantage.

“I never asked Brian Platt to make any other decisions on who gets who,” Loar said. “I just warned him that, in fact, I thought this would be a mistake for the city.”

She said there was nothing improper about her call, or its timing as city hall was negotiating with Vantage in August.

She made the call after a selection committee of five people pored over concessions bids that arrived following a request for proposals — when the city asked businesses to submit details of how they would run concessions at KCI.

The selection committee, composed of City Hall staff, a representative from Southwest Airlines and Kansas City Councilman Dan Fowler, recommended Vantage on July 28.

For the following month, City Hall staff negotiated privately with Vantage over the terms of a contract that it would take to the Kansas City Council in September.

“We are looking after the taxpayer. If I have a concern, I’m going to call him,” Loar said, referring to Platt.

‘Plainly inappropriate’

Other city council members said they were concerned to hear about what Platt reported in his email to the city attorney.

“I am glad to know that our city manager is doing the right thing by reporting something that seems to be, at the very least, out of the ordinary and unprofessional,” said Kansas City Council member Eric Bunch, who represents the city's fourth district. “I’m glad to see that he’s taking this very seriously.”

Bunch said he’s open to talking with businesses that are considering responding to a request for proposals (RFP) before it is issued.

“Once that has been issued there’s no conversation,” Bunch said. “It’s unethical and probably illegal in many cases for us to have communications with the potential respondents while an RFP is on the street.”

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas was copied on Platt’s email to the city law department.

“I think this is plainly inappropriate,” Lucas said. “And is a violation of at least the spirit of what our...procurement rules are built to suggest.”

Some on the city council note that Loar often favors proposals linked to businesses represented by Lynn Hinkle, a semi-retired public relations expert. Hinkle helped Loar get elected to the Kansas City Council in 2015, serving as the deputy treasurer for Loar’s campaign committee, according to filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

Hinkle said she worked with Paradies Lagardere on its proposal to run KCI concessions. She said her work involved helping identify popular restaurant concepts that may join with Paradies as well as introduce the group to members of the Kansas City Council.

Hinkle stopped working with the group in August when it became apparent that Vantage was the recommended bidder.

Lucas said the Paradies proposal is one, “I'll note that Councilwoman Loar has also spoken in some favor of.”

Loar said she has no preference for any proposal; just that she doesn’t want Vantage.

“To do this risky, out-of-the-box, maybe-it-will-work thing isn’t what we should be doing,” Loar said.

John Buttarazzi, an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy who teaches public-private partnerships, said in general, it’s fine for elected officials to try and shape public policy matters — labor participation, environmental concerns and the like — before requests for proposals are issued.

“I don’t think they should lobby, if you will, or advocate on behalf of a particular vendor or company,” Buttarazzi said. “That’s not really the role. I’m not sure there’s any illegality with it. It just doesn’t look right. And as a procurement officer you really don’t want that.”

In 1997, Kansas City published the Red Flag Commission Report reiterating that the city council and mayor craft public policy, and that it’s the job of City Hall staff to carry out those policies.

Among the commission’s recommendations was that while it’s fine for individual council members to request information from city staffers, individual council members have no authority to direct their activities.

‘I think that’s a conflict of interest’

Lucas said he was handed what he called a “dossier” from Loar on Fowler, the council member appointed to the selection committee that recommended Vantage for the concession contract.

The files, obtained by The Midwest Newsroom in response to a Missouri Sunshine Law request, contained reports from the Missouri Ethics Commission detailing payments made by Fowler's campaign committee to Parson & Associates during the 2019 election. The payments were for campaign consulting services.

Parson & Associates is run by Jason Parson, a government affairs firm in Kansas City. Parson is also working with Vantage.

Lucas saw the file as an attempt to besmirch Fowler and clutter up the procurement process.

“It raises the suspicion that the council person, or those who are close to her, were involved in this process to try to, if not derail the bid, to steer something to folks they may have some closer relationship with,” Lucas said.

Loar said she gave Lucas the documents following a conversation the two had over dinner.

“We had talked about this selection and I mentioned Dan (Fowler) and Jason (Parson) being good friends and Jason in fact received a lot of money from Dan during his campaign,” Loar said. “The mayor responded, ‘Well, I think that’s a conflict of interest.’ And I said, ‘Well maybe so.’ I pulled Dan’s reports and gave him the reports.”

Lucas said he doesn’t recall asserting that Fowler had a conflict of interest.

“[H]owever, in my six years and her 14 years in City Hall, the cure for an ethical concern has never been handing a folder about one colleague to another colleague,” Lucas responded in a text message from his chief of staff. “Hence why I provided the folder to the City Attorney.”

Fowler said he disclosed to the selection committee a potential issue when he realized Parson worked with Vantage on its proposal. Fowler said he discussed the matter with Gigliotti, the city attorney, and was told there’s no conflict. Gigliotti, according to Fowler, suggested consulting with the Kansas City Ethics Commission.

The Ethics Commission determined there was no favoritism or conflict of interest, but added that it would have been appropriate for Fowler to recuse himself to avoid the appearance of a conflict, according to the Kansas City Star.

“You can’t be in my position in this city without having relationships all over the place,” said Fowler, who represents the city's second district. “I’m not better or worse to do that than anyone else.”

Loar said she doesn’t see a legal conflict of interest in Fowler’s situation.

“I personally would have recused myself, but I don’t think there was any legal conflict,” Loar said. "It doesn’t look good, but legally I don’t think he has any conflict. Unless there’s something else I don’t know about.”

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.