A report by the Goldwater Institute indicates potential problems with the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program at Sky Harbor International Airport and specific instances in which the system allegedly was gamed by Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox.
Wilcox, a Hispanic woman who owns the Phoenix restaurant El Portal, also is a partial owner of a Chili’s franchise in Terminal 4 at Sky Harbor, according to the report by the Goldwater Institute’s investigative reporter Mark Flatten, who conducted a three-month probe into the concession contracts at the airport.
The report, released for publication Oct. 14, outlined a series of violations of federal guidelines and city policy. It stated that Wilcox obtained a $450,000 start-up loan from Host International that was to be repaid through profits from the restaurant, which is a violation of city policy. Host International holds the master concessions contract at Terminal 4.
The 24-page report also stated that Wilcox hasn’t played a role in the day-to-day operations of the franchise, which goes against federal rules for programs such as the DBE. Yet she “used her race and status as the owner of a disadvantaged business to land a lucrative concession deal,” according to the report.
“You’ve got to ask yourself if these programs are achieving the ends that they were created to achieve,” Flatten said during an interview with reporters Oct. 13.
Wilcox told the Goldwater Institute that she refuses to comment on personal matters.
Clint Bolick, an attorney on staff at the Goldwater Institute, said programs such as the DBE generally are not upheld by courts. He said the Institute considered filing a lawsuit, but the city claims to have suspended the program. Also, there is an effort afoot to put a measure on the 2010 ballot that would end preferential treatment for minority- and women-owned businesses seeking to obtain government contracts in Arizona.
“These programs are seriously questionable from a legal standpoint,” Bolick said.
When pressed whether the report was intended to highlight potential abuses of the program or call into question the validity of the program itself, Flatten said “It’s on multiple levels.”
“There are two levels of this,” said Flatten, who was a veteran reporter for the East Valley Tribune before taking the job at Goldwater earlier this year. “Is this a good program? Is it meeting the needs Congress intended?
“Even if you conclude this is a good program, is it being run the way it’s supposed to?”
To read the report and supplemental material, go to www.GoldwaterInstitute.org/HighFliers