FBI Investigating Philadelphia Airport Political Deal-Making

The investigation is part of a wide-ranging city corruption probe. The FBI is trying to determine whether any deals add up to fraud.

The shops and restaurants at Philadelphia International Airport are sleek and crowded, a mall-in-the-skyways that churns up millions in profits.

Behind the shiny store facades, though, is a legacy of political deal-making that stretches back a decade and thrives even now.

If you buy a drink in many of the airport's bars or a magazine at its newsstands or put a dollar in its vending machines, you're putting money in the pockets of a network of people with ties to Mayor Street, Gov. Rendell or other politicians.

Their names are a roster of power brokers old and new: White, Cianfrani, Salvatore, Nix. And many got in through a program designed to help the disadvantaged.

Now, the FBI has revved up its investigation of the city-owned airport, trying to determine whether any deals there add up to fraud.

Concession records have been subpoenaed this summer, as agents interview vendors, employees and other airport workers.

Many of the deals under FBI scrutiny were pushed by the late Ronald A. White, a longtime Street fund-raiser known around the airport as "the juice man" for his reputation as a kingmaker in City Hall.

The airport investigation is part of the wide-ranging city corruption probe, which included 25,000 phone calls wiretapped from White's phones, and 3,000 from the cell phone of James Tyrell, a senior airport official.

White is gone now - he died last year - but some of his deals are still going strong.

White's widow, Aruby Odom-White, a well-to-do psychiatrist, owns shares of two contracts, one to run six bars and another to operate six newsstands, though her firms have no employees, and she has had little role in the day-to-day operations. She has not been accused of wrongdoing.

White's longtime girlfriend, Janice Knight (also known as Renee Knight), was convicted May 9 of lying twice to FBI agents and has been sentenced to 51/2 months in prison and fined $100,000. But she still collects a share of the proceeds from an airport bar and from some of its vending machines, her lawyer says.

Even the city-hired company that manages the concession operation tried to get in on the action: on an FBI recording, the company's local partner was heard appealing to White to get his own piece of an airport bar.

These and other airport deals were part of a federal program that is supposed to make sure disadvantaged business owners - minorities, women and the disabled - get a fair share of airport contracts.

But in practice, here and in airports across the country, that program has become a vehicle to steer business to well-off people with political sway.

Once in place, some of these minority investors have done little besides lend their names and money, despite federal rules requiring them to do actual work, records and interviews show.

In Knight's vending venture, for example, her "job" was to take Coke orders from her partner and pass them along to bottlers - and add a quarter a can.

Inspectors from the U.S. Department of Transportation have also been poking into the airport's concession program, hunting for violations of the agency's rules about hiring minorities.

Knight's lawyer, Nino V. Tinari, said that since Knight's conviction, federal authorities had pressed her to become their witness.

According to evidence from her trial, she received a $250,000 loan from Commerce Bank so she could obtain an equity interest in one of the airport bars. But Knight never promised to manage the bar, Tinari said. She thought it was OK to be a silent investor - and no one running the airport said otherwise.

"Was there any time the city said she had to do something?" he said. Airport officials would not grant an interview, although sources say they are rigorously reviewing the city's oversight responsibilities.

The mayor's office has maintained that, although the city could veto any vendor recommended, it had a generally hands-off practice in concession matters.

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