CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Two operators of Charlotte taxicab companies say an uptown power broker, Mohammad Jenatian of the Greater Charlotte Hospitality and Tourism Alliance (HTA), promised they would get lucrative contracts at the Charlotte Douglas Airport if they paid thousands to join his group.
Jenatian flatly denies it - saying the taxi operators are just "pointing fingers" and bitter after losing an airport bid. But two key decision makers in the airport taxi contract sit on the HTA board, and corporate partners in HTA were recommended as winners in the deal.
Uptown and airport officials have pushed for years to tighten control over cab companies to provide clean, uniform service for visitors and to boost the city's first impression.
Airport director Jerry Orr and three others were part of a select committee to sort through proposals to narrow the number of taxicab companies at the airport from 12 to just 3. The winning companies get a much bigger slice of the airport business and guaranteed income at a time some Charlotte cab companies are failing.
At the same time, Frank Hinson, operator of Charlotte Checker Cab, says he was approached about joining the Hospitality and Tourism Alliance.
"I think it was an appeal to be part of the good ol' boy network in uptown," said Hinson, who bid on the airport deal and lost. But Hinson thinks he could have won the bid if he had paid $5,000 to join the HTA. "I was approached a number of times by Mohammad Jenatian of the HTA. He called my cell phone. He suggested to me my problems at the airport would go away if he were representing me as a member of his organization. "
The HTA represents 800 businesses like hotels, motels and taxicab companies. Mohammad Jenatian is the group's president and frequently lobbies city council, which will have final approval on the airport taxicab contract.
Jenatian told the I-Team in a telephone interview, "I absolutely did not make that promise (to secure the airport contract) to anybody." He said, "I'm not in a position to do that.... For (the company operators) to go back and point fingers, it is totally inappropriate."
But Hinson is not the only cab operator to say Jenatian promised him airport business if he only joined the HTA.
"I was approached by a couple of people that I should be a member of the HTA in order to maintain - to be at the airport," said Mohamed Moustafa, the owner of Universal Cab, which, like Checker and other companies, already works at the airport.
Moustafa also bid on the airport deal. He also lost. "This is about a special entity affiliated with HTA and uptown boosters," said Moustafa.
Two of the three cab companies who were recommended by the airport committee, Yellow Cab and Crown Cab, paid $5,000 each to join HTA as "corporate partners."
Moustafa and Universal cab joined HTA but at a lower sponsorship level - $2500 - and late in the proposal process. The membership didn't help him. Universal was not among the recommended companies.
When asked whether the HTA had any say in the three cab companies recommended by the 4-man committee, aviation director Jerry Orr replied with one word: "none."
Instead, Orr said, "There is no HTA connection to this process. This is an airport process. We've tried to be as reasonable and objective throughout as we possibly can. Our bottom line goal is improving the service."
But Moustafa of Universal Cab said, "I don't think any one of them is very neutral."
That's because one of the four men on the small committee to pick the winning taxicab bids, Tim Newman of the Charlotte Regional Visitor's Authority, is an ex-officio member of the HTA board and a close ally of HTA president Mohammad Jenatian.
And Charlotte Councilman Patrick Cannon, who will cast a vote on the airport contract, is also a member of the HTA board representing his business, EZ Parking.
"In my opinion all the uptown booster organizations are rather incestuous, The same people show up on names of boards, advisers, etc." said Hinson of Checker Cab.
But Tim Newman flatly denies any connection between HTA and the airport taxi contract. "There was no involvement, impact or even conversation about any cab company in HTA at any time. It had absolutely nothing to do with my selection process at all."
Councilman Patrick Cannon chairs the Public Safety committee which oversees taxicabs. When asked if his presence on the HTA board gives the group more influence at city hall, Cannon replied, "Absolutely not - and let me tell you why. Patrick Cannon is there by way of his private company - his business. He's not there by way of his public hat that he wears."
When asked about the allegations that Mohammad Jenatian promised them airport business, "I've never heard that before. It's news to me."
After the I-Team raised questions about Councilman Cannon serving on the HTA board and voting on taxicab issues, Cannon asked for a city attorney's opinion about whether there was a conflict of interest. The attorney wrote that Cannon had no conflict unless he directly benefited from his votes.
The City Council is set to hear the airport taxi proposals next Monday - Valentine's Day - the 14th. The Council will be the final arbiters of whether the three cab companies being recommended were really the best bids or just the best connected.