What is the Big Secret?

Louis E. Miller appeared before a U.S. House committee four months before he was hired to run Tampa International Airport. "I am pleased to be here today to discuss the issue of airport revenue diversion," Miller began his 1996 congressional testimony. Speaking on behalf of airport executives across the nation, Miller said they shared the committee's view that funds generated by airports should be used for airport purposes. "In a time of declining federal funding for airport development and rapidly growing airport capital development needs," Miller said in his prepared remarks, "it is not in the interest of any airport to allow its revenues to be diverted by local officials or other entities."

Noble words from Miller, who directed the Salt Lake City airport at the time.

So, after he took the Tampa airport job, what did Miller think of International Plaza?

Wheeler-dealer Richard A. Corbett's highly unusual ground lease for the International Plaza hotel-office-shopping complex, which is under construction at the southeast corner of the Tampa airport, has been called unpleasant names by critics. Taxpayers for Common Sense thought Corbett's vastly below-market lease payments deserved a "Golden Fleece Award." Corbett's deal could cost taxpayers more than $500-million over the remaining 79 years of the lease, according to the group. But the one thing Miller won't call the International Plaza lease is revenue diversion. "I don't think so," said the director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority — and Corbett's landlord. Fortunately for Miller and his airport, which depends on millions of dollars in U.S. government grants and other subsidies, the Federal Aviation Administration agrees.

As recently as 1999, the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general recommended that the FAA withhold discretionary grants to the aviation authority until rents were brought up to market rates. But the FAA concluded last July that the International Plaza land lease "is not inconsistent" with the aviation authority's "obligation to use airport revenues only for airport purposes."

The FAA's blessing of the Corbett lease incensed Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog of federal spending. The group contends the Corbett lease is one of the most obscene diversions of public airport resources into private pockets anywhere in America. "A half-billion taxpayer dollars is being hijacked," said Taxpayers for Common Sense President Ralph DeGennaro. "But the FAA just says have a pleasant flight."

Miller said the FAA report should end the controversy. "The FAA's final report, which is less than a year old, says it's OK," Miller said. "This is something behind us and we're moving forward."

Before the tale of Corbett's lease fades into Tampa political history, however, a few questions beg to be answered. The airport land that Corbett has been lucky enough to lease is 156 prime acres roughly bordered by Columbus Drive and Boy Scout and West Shore boulevards.

Why would a growing airport lease precious vacant land, donated by the federal government for future expansion, at cut rates for yet another mall?

Could it have anything remotely to do with Corbett's employment of the son of a longtime aviation authority lawyer, Stewart C. Eggert? Or that Corbett's own lawyer and former business partner, Stella Ferguson Thayer, was sitting on the authority while he extracted some remarkable concessions?

Deploying influential Tampans such as downtown high-rise developer Richard A. Beard III and land-use lawyer David M. Mechanik didn't hurt Corbett's cause.

Eggert denies an ethical conflict. Thayer has abstained from voting on Corbett's lease. Beard couldn't be contacted. And Mechanik has said there was nothing unusual about the lease.

But rare is the deal that Corbett finagled from the aviation authority. International Plaza quite likely has made Corbett a multimillionaire — at, critics might add, the expense of taxpayers and airport users.

Is there a postscript to the Corbett story?

Miller has refused to secure from Corbett and turn over to the Weekly Planet a document that might disclose how much Corbett is making at public expense and who else could be profiting with him. The Planet went to court April 11 to try to compel Miller to produce the document, which the newspaper's lawyer believes is a public record.

The Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times have published exposes on the International Plaza lease during the past year. The Tribune recounted Corbett's 20-year association with the property and his past failed development schemes. Hardly mentioned was a foreclosure lawsuit against Corbett and his wife on the leasehold. The Times hired an appraiser to debunk a 1996 Corbett-funded appraisal of the lease that airport officials still cite in their defense of slashing Corbett's rent payments.

But it wasn't local news media that initially uncovered irregularities with the Corbett lease. It was the nervous owner of nearby West Shore Plaza. Executives of Grosvenor International (American Freeholds) Ltd. Inc. are concerned that Corbett's taxpayer-subsidized sweetheart deal puts their mall at a competitive disadvantage. Corbett's land-lease payments are so low that his mall development partner, Taubman Centers Inc., has been able to offer special rent concessions that could enable International Plaza retail tenants to undersell West Shore Plaza merchants, Grosvenor executives believe.

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