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Cab owner sues city, alleging ‘pay-to-play’ scheme at airport

CANNON_TAXI
TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
Charlotte Douglas International officials say the reduction to three cab companies aims to improve customer service.

The owner of a taxi company that was shut out of Charlotte Douglas International Airport filed a lawsuit Thursday against some of the major players involved in the controversial 2011 selection process, including former Mayor Patrick Cannon, former Aviation Director Jerry Orr and former tourism chief Tim Newman.

Mohamed Moustafa of Universal Cab has long said that the Greater Charlotte Hospitality and Tourism Alliance, a lobbying group, orchestrated a “pay-to-play” scheme in which taxi companies that increased their membership fees would win a place at the airport. The HTA has denied the allegation.

The City Council in 2011 reduced the number of taxi companies that were allowed to pick up passengers at the airport from 12 to 3. Universal was not included.

Moustafa has sued the city before over the taxi issue. After council members awarded the airport contracts to Yellow Cab, City Cab and Crown Cab, Moustafa sued the city in July 2011, seeking an injunction against losing his airport spot. His motion was dismissed.

The city of Charlotte was also named in his Thursday lawsuit. City Attorney Bob Hagemann said Friday he had not seen the lawsuit and couldn’t comment.

Moustafa is seeking more than $10,000 in damages.

After Cannon’s arrest on federal corruption charges in March, City Manager Ron Carlee and interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle announced in May that they would re-bid the taxi contract. They haven’t said how many companies will be selected for airport service.

In his lawsuit, Moustafa said he had a falling out with Newman, the former chief of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, and Mohammad Jenatian of the HTA in 2006. He said Newman was meeting with taxi company owners and told them that the NASCAR Hall of Fame – which would open in 2010 – would substantially increase tourism to the city.

Moustafa said Newman asked that cab companies repaint their cars with a NASCAR paint scheme. Moustafa said he refused.

At that point, Moustafa claims in the lawsuit that Newman and Jenatian called him ethnic slurs and said they were going to remove him from the airport.

Moustafa contends in the lawsuit that Newman had a “secret agenda” to reduce the number of companies operating at the airport in order to “oust” Universal from serving the airport.

Newman would later serve on the four-person selection committee that made a recommendation on which cab companies should be awarded contracts, along with Orr.

Moustafa and another cab company, Checker Cab, said Jenatian told them they could win a spot at the airport if they paid more in dues to the HTA. Universal said he joined the lobbying group, but he said his membership fees weren’t as much as Jenatian requested.

Newman has denied any wrongdoing, as has Jenatian. Orr also has said the selection process was fair.

Cannon, who pleaded guilty to a federal corruption charge this month, was close politically with the HTA. Newman’s CRVA also gave Cannon’s parking management company, E-Z Parking, a no-bid contract to manage a CRVA parking lot on Caldwell Street. Newman and Cannon’s relationship was cited in the lawsuit.

Cannon, who was a council member at the time of the lawsuit, chaired the public safety committee, which handled taxi issues.

Moustafa’s lawsuit also names the three winning cab companies as defendants. He alleged that there was a “quid pro quo” in which the companies either made campaign contributions to Cannon or joined the HTA in exchange for favorable treatment.

Staff writers Ely Portillo and Rachel Adams-Heard contributed.

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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