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FBI looking into Charlotte airport taxi contract

The FBI is probing the Charlotte City Council’s controversial 2011 vote to limit access for taxicabs at the airport, a decision under scrutiny in the wake of former Mayor Patrick Cannon’s arrest on federal corruption charges in March.

Obaid Khan, part owner of Diamond Cab, said he was interviewed by special agent Eric Davis about three weeks ago.

Diamond was one of the companies that lost access to the airport. At the time, and after Cannon’s arrest, Khan and other cab owners complained that the process had been corrupted into a pay-to-play scheme. Khan said agents contacted him to talk about his allegations.

“They got my story of how everything went down,” Khan said. He also detailed how Diamond has been hurt financially since it lost access to pick up passengers at Charlotte Douglas. He said the meeting, at an FBI office, lasted about an hour. Khan said he hasn’t heard back from the agents, but they told him they would follow up on the lead.

A second person told the Observer that they were also interviewed by Davis in early May. The person – who was involved in the taxi permitting process with the city – asked not to be named because the discussion was part of an ongoing investigation.

Davis signed the 42-page affidavit against Cannon, when the ex-mayor was arrested March 26 and accused of promising undercover agents posing as developers help in exchange for bribes.

FBI spokeswoman Shelley Lynch declined to comment on the investigation Thursday.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said that Cannon told undercover agents he could influence a number of city departments, including permitting, planning and zoning and the local alcohol licensing unit of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

The FBI has interviewed other local government officials, including County Manager Dena Diorio, who was asked about the county’s permitting process.

Controversial for years

The airport’s taxicab contract has been controversial for years, with taxicab companies that lost the ability to pick up passengers at the airport complaining that they were unfairly shut out.

At the time, Diamond and other taxi companies alleged that they were told by a city hospitality lobbying group that they needed to increase their membership fees in order to win a spot at the airport. Cannon, then mayor pro tem, was a board member of the Greater Charlotte Hospitality and Tourism Alliance, which has denied any wrongdoing.

The winning cab companies, Yellow Cab, City Cab and Crown Cab, were selected in a multistage process. First, a selection committee with former Aviation Director Jerry Orr and three other officials picked the cab companies, which were then approved by the public safety committee Cannon chaired. Finally, the full City Council voted on the contract.

Orr said Thursday he has not been contacted by investigators.

The owners of Universal Cab and Checker Cab – two losing companies – said that after the vote they were approached in 2011 by a man who said he was an associate of Cannon’s. The man told them he could get them a spot at the airport in exchange for $10,000. The money would be given to Cannon and other council members, the cab owners said the man told them.

The airport contract also coincided with large campaign contributions to Cannon and other council members. Cannon, for instance, received $32,000 in contributions from the out-of-state owners of Yellow Cab for his mayoral campaign.

Exploring changes

City Manager Ron Carlee and Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle are considering whether to rebid the contract in the next month. There are still two one-year renewal options the airport could exercise.

Both officials have said they believe the process was fair, but Cagle has said the airport wants to investigate any claims of impropriety.

One possibility, Cagle said, is to allow more taxi companies to have access to the airport.

Carlee said Tuesday he will make a decision about the contract in the next few days.

Some council members were skeptical of reopening the contract after Carlee and Cagle discussed the issue in May. Some said the current system is working, with fewer customer complaints due in part to having higher standards for cabs, including having credit card machines and GPS.

Council member Kenny Smith, however, said the city could have more cab companies operating at the airport, while making sure all held to high standards.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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