Airport lobbying: not priceless

Porter Novelli’s Linda Martin (left) and lobbyist Bob White (right) stand to benefit from lucrative PR deals made by the airport authority’s Thella Bowens (center).
  • Porter Novelli’s Linda Martin (left) and lobbyist Bob White (right) stand to benefit from lucrative PR deals made by the airport authority’s Thella Bowens (center).

Some longtime San Diego lobbyists and Republican political players are picking up major change from the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority in the form of a lucrative “public outreach” contract ­— which during a 24-month period ending this coming June will net the group a cool $1.55 million. The information is revealed in a document obtained following a request to the authority under the California Public Records Act. The pact, between the airport authority and the downtown public relations and lobbying operation of Porter Novelli, was initiated July 1, 2011; it paid $775,000 the first year, and has been extended through 2013 at the same rate, according to a May 15, 2012, letter to Porter Novelli executive vice president Linda Martin from airport authority president and CEO Thella Bowens. According to the contract, its “scope of work” is broad, ranging from “public opinion research,” including “research, surveys, focus groups or other means,” to “expanding the Authority’s Speakers Bureau Program,” to “identifying media opportunities,” and “pitching story ideas to the media.”

But the most intriguing aspect of the deal involves not the news media, but the airport authority’s lobbying of politicos in other government agencies, including San Diego’s mayor and city council: “Contractor shall provide strategic guidance, messages and communications tools for the Authority’s communications and interaction with elected officials and local, state and federal agencies on the Authority planning and initiative process.”

Porter Novelli, which is not registered as a city lobbyist, isn’t handling that aspect of the work. Instead, it is subcontracting with California Strategies, the Sacramento-based public policy and lobbying shop founded by Bob White, onetime top aide to ex-San Diego mayor and GOP governor Pete Wilson. The contract calls for White’s firm to be paid $12,000 a month for the life of the contract. Though the airport’s document doesn’t goes into details about the specific role of White’s firm in advancing the authority’s agenda, California Strategies’ lobbyist disclosure filing this month with the City of San Diego says its job is to “Inform and update city council and mayor on long-term and short-term improvements to Lindbergh Field.” The document lists “outcomes sought” as “Consensus on Green Build Plan; support for airport improvements and operations as appropriate.”

Ben Haddad, who was onetime head of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce and former top aide to Republican mayor Susan Golding, among other gigs, is one of the firm’s lobbyists on the job, along with Craig Benedetto and James Lawson. California Strategies employees have given money and held fundraising parties for San Diego mayoral and city council races, meaning that some airport money may have at least indirectly found its way into local politics.

Haddad did not respond to a message left with his office.

In addition to White’s firm, according to the contract, another local lobbyist working for the airport authority is Peter MacCracken, proprietor of Strategic Communications, which is being paid $211.50 per hour; no accounting of MacCracken’s time is provided in the document furnished by the authority.

Ironically, one of the most influential members of the airport authority’s board is the city’s dean of lobbyists: attorney Paul Robinson, who represents such high-dollar clients as U-T San Diego owner and GOP hotel magnate Douglas Manchester and Las Vegas developer Irwin Molasky, onetime associate of the late mobster Moe Dalitz.

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When is that San Diego Airport Authority going to get reined in? When will it actually do something for the airport-using public to improve the airport experience for travelers inside and outside the terminal? (These days it just expands terminal gate-capacity as airline usage declines.)

It's also been a haven and source of six-figure salaries for politicos in-between-jobs like ex-school supe Alan Bersin and his successor Bob Watkins who was famous for flying first-class on work junkets and being arrogant with mild-mannered reporters. Now we've got do-nothing big-dollar contracts for unregistered (!) lobbying firm Porter Novelli to wine and dine "influentials."

I thought the Airport Authority used to be administered by the Port of San Diego.
Maybe that would be a good idea again.

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