For three years, taxi companies that lost access to Charlotte Douglas International Airport have said the public selection process was rigged.
Now, in the wake of former Mayor Patrick Cannon’s arrest last week on corruption charges, two owners of cab companies have told the Observer they were offered a chance to buy their way back into the airport.
One cab company owner said he was approached in 2011 by a man who called himself an associate of Cannon with a proposition: Give me $10,000 in cash for Cannon’s campaign and reclaim your business at Charlotte Douglas. A second taxi cab owner recounted a similar story about being approached by the man, who solicited $10,000 for City Council members, including Cannon, in exchange for airport business.
Cannon resigned as mayor Wednesday after a four-year FBI undercover investigation. Cannon is accused of taking $48,000 in cash and gifts in exchange for promising developers he would help them with any issues with city and county officials regarding permitting, zoning and alcohol licenses.
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The 42-page FBI affidavit did not mention taxi cabs, but it was a controversial issue before the City Council, and taxi owners claimed Cannon was not impartial. The decision meant that nine cab companies would lose access to the airport before the Democratic National Convention.
Naheed Kashmary, co-owner of Royal Cab, said Zulfiqar Ali Kacho, known as “Zack,” came to Kashmary’s office on Gordon Street in 2011. Kashmary said Kacho locked the door and spoke quietly as he made the offer.
“He said, ‘I can get you back at the airport, if you donate $10,000 to his campaign,’ ” Kashmary said Kacho told him.
Kashmary said Kacho told him to get other taxi companies to also donate $10,000 for airport business. He said Kacho “made it clear” that he was speaking to him on behalf of Cannon, who was a City Council member at the time.
Kashmary said he telephoned his attorney, Thomas Windsor, who advised him not to pay. Windsor died in February.
Kacho was arrested last year in March and charged with soliciting an undercover FBI agent to burn down a private investigator’s house in Bluffton, S.C.
Records show he pleaded guilty in July, and is awaiting sentencing in North Mecklenburg jail. The Observer told his attorney, Mark Foster, of the allegations. Foster said he visited Kacho in jail on Monday, and Kacho declined to comment.
If the taxi owners’ allegations against Kacho are true, Kacho may have been acting on his own, without Cannon’s knowledge. Neither Cannon nor his attorney James Ferguson could be reached Monday.
In 2010, former Aviation Director Jerry Orr and the city announced it would reduce the number of taxi companies at the airport from 12 to three. Orr said he wanted fewer companies to ensure good customer service.
When the city began culling the list of eligible cab companies, rejected owners claimed the process wasn’t transparent. They said the Greater Charlotte Hospitality and Tourism Alliance, a private lobbying group, was unfairly influencing the selection.
Two owners – Frank Hinson and Mohamed Moustafa – said Monday that the HTA was asking them to increase their annual membership fees to ensure they could still work at Charlotte Douglas.
Reached Monday night, HTA President Mohammad Jenatian called those allegations “absolutely not true. I had no right whatsoever nor the ability to say that to them. I have never made promises that I could not deliver.”
Jeff Davis, an attorney representing Universal Cab, which wasn’t selected, said during a June 2011 City Council meeting that the HTA had turned the cab selection process into “a pay-to-play” scheme.
Cabbies also complained that Cannon shouldn’t be allowed to vote on the matter because of his membership with the HTA.
Hinson of Checker Cab, another company that wasn’t picked, said at the meeting that “if you have received benefits from the largess of (Jenatian), it is your duty to recuse yourself from this vote. If there is a perception of a conflict of interest, you should likewise remove yourself.”
Hinson said Friday he was referring to Cannon.
Cannon’s parking management company, E-Z Parking, is an HTA member. Cannon also sits on the HTA board and is a political ally of Jenatian. Jenatian attended Cannon’s speech to kick off his mayoral campaign in May 2013.
Jenatian has denied there was any favoritism in how the taxi companies were selected. He declined to comment on Monday for this story.
Moustafa, the owner of Universal Cab, told the Observer on Monday that before the final airport taxi vote in June 2011, Jenatian told him in order to stay at the airport he would need to join the HTA for $5,000 – an offer Moustafa said he turned down. HTA membership levels start at $295 and reach $5,000 for corporate partnerships.
Jenatian said Monday that account is untrue. Membership “is a choice that everybody has, but it’s not anything that anybody has to do.”
After the vote, Moustafa said Kacho called him and asked for a meeting.
Moustafa said he met with Kacho in Kacho’s former Fairview Road office in 2011. There, he said Kacho asked him for $10,000 as a “down payment” to get his company back to the airport. Moustafa said that Kacho told him he could get the money to City Council members, including Cannon.
He said Kacho bragged about his connections to local government and businesses, showing him a roomful of computer servers in his office that he said were used by them.
“He tried to show me he’s a powerful man,” said Moustafa. “He was trying to impress me.”
Moustafa said he turned down Kacho and took his concerns to the FBI.
Kacho and the HTA
Kacho’s company, Webneed, provided Internet and phone service to hotels, according to court documents.
State records show Webneed was incorporated in 1999 and dissolved in 2005 for failing to file annual reports.
Webneed joined the HTA in 2009, according to an HTA newsletter.
A Facebook page apparently belonging to Kacho lists his job as president of Webneed and shows pictures of him at different events with local power brokers: at a 2012 HTA dinner, at an event at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and with his arm draped around State Sen. Bob Rucho in 2011.
In another instance, Kacho is pictured giving a presentation in front of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department logo inside what appears to be a city building.
Kacho’s Facebook page doesn’t include photos of him with Cannon.
Rucho said he didn’t remember Kacho, but he likely met him at an Asian American Hotel Owners Association event where Rucho spoke.
Mayur Khandelwal, an owner of Crown Cab, is one of three companies that has a contract to pick up passengers at the airport. Khandelwal supported Cannon politically – he gave him $250 during the 2013 mayor’s race – and said he believes the taxi selection process was fair.
He said Kacho’s Webneed did IT work for Crown Cab in the past.
“I have known Zack for a long time,” Khandelwal said. “He is the kind of person who will speak vociferously about something. It’s hard to tell if it’s hot air, and how much of it is substance.”
He added: “I think he once got an invitation to Patrick Cannon’s fundraiser. He said if you participate something can happen. He was saying, ‘I can make things happen.’ I think if he thought he was a bundler he could be someone of consequence.”
A “bundler” is someone who collects political donations from a number of people and then takes them to a candidate.
In March 2013, Kacho attempted to hire an arsonist to torch the home of a private investigator, according to the FBI’s complaint against him. He allegedly viewed the investigator as a romantic rival.
Kacho also wanted to make sure the investigator’s files were burned, according to the documents. He allegedly suggested spraying gasoline in the home’s crawlspace and offered $1,000 for the job.
“I will get this (expletive), teach him a lesson,” Kacho allegedly said, in a transcript of an undercover agent’s recording of their conversation.
Kashmary’s taxi company, then known as King Cab, had been recommended for one of the three slots at the airport. King Cab was not a member of the HTA, while the other two companies – Crown Cab and Taxi USA – were members.
But in February 2011, the Observer and WCNC-TV reported that Naheed Kashmary and his brother, a co-owner in the company, had felony convictions.
Naheed Kashmary served 14 months in federal prison in Gilmer, W.Va., for transaction structuring, a financial crime.
Former City Manager Curt Walton recommended against giving King Cab one of the airport contracts. King was replaced by City Cab. During the 2013 mayoral campaign, 22 taxi drivers from City Cab each gave $225 to Cannon’s campaign for a total of $4,950.
At the time, Cannon was head of the City Council’s public safety committee, which handled issues and ordinances involving taxi cabs. In the U.S. Attorney’s Office affidavit, Cannon allegedly boasted that his role leading the committee gave him a good relationship with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police.
A four-person selection committee recommended which three taxi companies should get contracts. One member of the committee was Orr.
At the time, he had heard rumors that political figures were soliciting cab companies to influence the selection process.
“Yeah, and I would caveat that by saying in the cab industry in Charlotte, rumors are rampant,” Orr said Monday. “Trying to separate the wheat from the chaff is difficult.”
“I don’t specifically remember that Patrick was one of the people” he heard shady rumors about, Orr said. “He may or may not have been.”
Another member of the four-person selection committee that recommended which taxi cabs were selected was Tim Newman, the former chief executive of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. Newman was demoted after a series of missteps, including erroneous attendance projections at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Newman could not be reached for comment.
Newman’s CRVA had given Cannon’s parking company a lucrative no-bid contract to manage a parking lot on Caldwell Street.
In 2011, Cannon voted against former Mayor Anthony Foxx’s request to withhold funding from the CRVA. Foxx was attempting to pressure the CRVA board to remove Newman.
Newman and Jenatian had worked together on tourism projects.
After the alleged offer, Kashmary said he telephoned the owners of Diamond Cab, another company that had lost access to the airport.
Obaid Khan, who co-owns Diamond with his father, confirmed Friday that Kashmary called to discuss the alleged offer. “We didn’t want to go that route,” Khan said.
Khan said he knew Kacho, whose IT company did some work for Diamond.
“(Kacho) would let you know that he was friends with Patrick Cannon,” Khan said. “He would take out his phone and show photos of them together.”
Staff researcher Maria David contributed