Aviation Board member has possible conflict of interest _lowres

Gary Smith Sr.

A New Orleans Aviation Board member owns a significant stake in a high-powered, well-connected political consulting firm that represents one of the companies vying to build Louis Armstrong International Airport’s new terminal. As a result, even though the consultants are not working on the airport bid, Gary Smith Sr. could be barred from continuing to serve on the authority.

Smith, the board’s St. Charles Parish representative, said this week he was not aware that Sabiston Consultants, a lobbying and PR company in which he has a 30 percent interest, did work for Woodward Design+Build, a major subcontractor in the initial proposal submitted by Parsons Odebrecht, one of the two joint ventures seeking the half-billion-dollar contract.

When informed of the apparent conflict, which is barred by state laws aimed at preventing public servants from receiving money from companies that get business from their agencies, Smith said he would ask for advice from the airport’s attorneys.

“I’ll let the board counsel advise me on what I need to do,” Smith said about his continuing involvement with the board and the bid process. “I sure don’t want to put any clouds over it for any reason.”

Smith and his brother have been involved with Sabiston Consultants, which has strong connections to the Landrieu family, for years. But Smith said that while he owns a 30 percent stake in the company, he is not involved in its day-to-day operations.

Smith’s family owns and runs the Magnolia Companies, which includes firms related to the marine industry, motor sports, real estate and other ventures in addition to its involvement with Sabiston. The company was founded by his father, Henry Smith, who also was the longest-serving member of the Aviation Board, formerly representing St. Charles Parish on that body for 26 years.

“Over the years, we ended up investing in different companies,” Smith said.

Norma Jane Sabiston, who runs Sabiston Consultants, said the firm had been approached by Parsons Odebrecht early in the process but declined to work for them because Smith’s position on the Aviation Board represented a conflict.

“We did not engage with the Parsons Odebrecht team or the other team because I have a business partner who serves on the Aviation Board,” Sabiston said. “I thought that there was a conflict, so I did not join either team.”

Sabiston was on the staff of former U.S. Sen. John Breaux, then served as chief of staff to Sen. Mary Landrieu before going into the private sector. As a political consultant, she has remained a close ally of both Mary Landrieu and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and has done work for both of them.

The firm and Sabiston herself have received more than $70,000 for campaign consulting services from the mayor since 2006, according to campaign finance records. Sabiston also serves as treasurer of Jazz PAC, Mary Landrieu’s political action committee.

The Sabiston firm has represented Woodward since 2010, but Sabiston said her firm has stayed away from the airport’s request for proposals to build the new terminal.

“We work very well together (with Woodward) but did not work on the airport terminal RFP,” Sabiston said. “We’ve had no discussions about the RFP because we’re very mindful of the conflict. We really have not had any in-depth discussions about it.”

Woodward is not a partner in the joint venture but, according to the Parsons Odebrecht proposal, would serve as a significant consultant and subcontractor on the project.

The state’s ethics laws appear to bar Smith from receiving income from Woodward because of that company’s involvement in the Parsons Odebrecht bid.

Public officials, and companies in which they have more than a 25 percent interest, are barred from receiving any money from people or firms that are seeking or hold contracts with the agency they represent, according to state ethics laws.

That would apparently include a relationship such as Sabiston’s ongoing work with Woodward, even if that work had nothing to do with the terminal contract.

“Once someone is a prohibited source because of one of the enumerated relationships, then they are a prohibited source of income for you as long as that relationship lasts. Period. The nature of the services you are to provide is irrelevant,” according to a fact sheet on the law provided by the state Ethics Administration.

The process of finding a company to build the airport’s new $546.5 million terminal already has already been through several twists and turns.

An evaluation committee initially gave Parsons Odebrecht, a partnership between companies based in California and Brazil, and Hunt Gibbs Boh Metro, a joint venture made up of an Indianapolis firm and three large local contractors, tie scores on their proposals. That led to a second round of scoring, in which the committee gave Parsons Odebrecht a commanding lead.

That scoring was challenged by Hunt Gibbs Boh Metro on technical grounds. Questions also were raised about a member of the evaluation committee, Deputy New Orleans Mayor Cedric Grant, who had previously worked for Parsons.

The Aviation Board this month voted unanimously to toss out both responses to its initial request for proposals and go back to the drawing board. A second request was put out this week, and both joint ventures are expected to submit new bids on the project.

“I had a longtime friendship with Robert Boh and with the Gibbs family, and so it’s a little awkward because I have very good friends and colleagues on both sides of the equation,” Sabiston said.

Smith said he is prepared to do whatever the airport’s attorneys advise is necessary to abide by the terms of the ethics laws.

He stressed the importance of building the new terminal.

“This is a wonderful and exciting project, something really valuable for the economy of the whole state,” he said.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.